How long are you able to remember something after you’ve just learnt it? To help understand we are going to look at the findings of the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909).
Ebbinghaus was a university professor who dedicated his life to the study of memory and how we can improve it.
Ebbinghaus’ Memory Experiments
Ebbinghaus conducted a many series of experiments that included memorising lists of random letters, learning words, learning poetry, and testing his recall at different times from when he first learnt it.
He wanted to understand how well we can remember things, and how quickly we learn them or forget them. They may not be the most rigorous experiments but they do provide some useful key learnings:
- Forgetting is most rapid within the first nine hours, and 24 hours after learning something we forget two thirds of it.
- Items forgotten can be relearned faster than new ones learned for the first time.
- Meaningful things are remembered for about ten times longer than random, meaningless things.
- Items towards the beginning and end of a series are most easily remembered.
- Repeated learning sessions over a longer interval of time improves memory retention on any subject.
How Does This Help?
Here are my thoughts on how we can use Ebbinghaus’ experiments to improve our memory.
The majority of what you learn will be forgotten after several hours, therefore it’s important to repeat what you learnt yesterday, again today. This is also important because forgotten information can be re-learnt quicker than new information.
As we tend to only remember information at the beginning and end of a session, we should make sure to briefly cover everything we’re going to learn at the beginning of a session, and then recap everything we have just learnt at the end of a session. This will help us to remember the important information.
Make the learning as fun and meaningful as possible; dry facts and statistics that have no relevance to your life will be hard to remember.
Simply trying to “knuckle down” and “work harder” won’t help. Spending long hours staring blankly at a book, trying to get the facts to just sink in often doesn’t work.
Making a game of learning, making it fun, and trying to bring the facts to life in meaningful real-world examples will help improve memory recall. How can you apply these facts to new situations in your life or even test them out for yourself? A practical learning experience is better than a theoretical learning experience.
Repetition, repetition, repetition. Just like you can’t expect to go to the gym once and be fit for life. You can’t expect to learn something once and then remember it forever. You have to repeat the learning again, and again, and again.
- Briefly cover everything we’re going to learn at the beginning of a session, and then recap everything we’ve just learnt at the end of a session.
- Forgotten information can be re-learnt quicker than new information.
- Repeat what you learnt yesterday, again today.
- Make the learning as fun and meaningful as possible.
- Repeat the learning again, and again, and again.