Don’t Forget to Learn

We spend a lot of time teaching students various things, but don’t focus enough on helping them actually remember what we’ve taught them. Many students lack the necessary strategies to make learning stick. They are familiar with rote memorization, but this technique is boring. While rote can be effective, it’s not efficient and demands high levels of motivation from learners. It might ‘kill’ some of the student’s motivation, but sometimes repetition is necessary for learning. Not all learning is fun. Despite being given a bad name, the ‘drill and kill’ has its place. Beyond rote memorization, to what extent are we giving students the necessary tools to remember what they’ve learned?

Let’s think of memory as RRR + R:  The first R is registration or the absorbing of new information. In general, the better you can register it, the better you can recall it. The key to registration is visual – if you can see it, you can remember it. Humans have a bad memory for abstract concepts, so the more we can ‘concretize’ learning for students, the better they’ll remember it. And the harder something is to learn, the more we remember it. I think we’d all agree that providing challenges and having high expectations for our students is always beneficial. The second R is retention or hanging on to it once we’ve learned it. The third R is recall or bringing it back out when you need it. The final R is review or the ability to revisit learning. It is the key to improving students’ memory.

In the late 1800s, a German psychologist,  Hermann Ebbinghaus, was the first to experimentally investigate the properties of human memory. He wanted to identify how quickly memory deteriorates if nothing is done to reinforce it. Ebbinghaus showed that the process of committing something to memory involved the formation of new associations. He found that these associations were strengthened through repetition.

Using nonsense syllables consisting of a sequence of consonant, vowel, and consonant (i.e. CAJ or BES), Ebbinghaus practiced a list of 20 until he was able to repeat the items correctly two times in a row. He then waited varying lengths of time before testing himself again. Forgetting occurred most rapidly soon after the end of practice, but the rate of forgetting slowed as time went on and fewer items could be recalled. Ebbinghaus found that within 20 minutes – 42% of the memorized list was lost, within 24 hours – 67% of what he learned had vanished and a month later 79% had been forgotten.


This graph highlights an important aspect of learning, but it’s not something that most teachers are familiar with. It’s a basic truth that needs to be understood. While Ebbinghaus used simplified test material that is absent from today’s classrooms, his findings can’t be ignored. The forgetting curve has significant and direct implications on how we teach.

To help students remember, let’s structure lessons around the 3 Ms: meaningful, memorable and manageable. Instead of always being in a rush to cover content and move on to the next topic or unit (that according to Ebbinghaus’ research is soon forgotten anyways), let’s take the time to help students consolidate their learning. Given the demands of the curriculum, it can be a challenge to find the time to review learning with students. But it’s time well spent. Each revisiting of learned material reinforces its retention. Each revisiting strengths neural connections in the brain that improve retention. And improved retention leads to improved learning.

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