What is the 'Forgetting Curve'?

Last Updated: 15 June 2022

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We’ve all been so proud of ourselves for learning a whole set of information for a test or exam, only for all of this newfound knowledge to slip away within days. Aside from being incredibly frustrating, this can also lead to us feeling like the original time investment was wasted. Maybe this sort of thing has happened so many times that now you hesitate to study anything new at all!

If this is the case, it’s understandable. Whatsmore, it’s pretty common: an inability to retain information can be a result of ill-fitting study habits, or even ill-fitting study subjects.

In this article, you’ll find out who Hermann Ebbinghaus was and how he can help you retain information for longer – or, if done correctly, maybe even forever. But first: why is this important?

Why do you keep forgetting what you’ve learned?

If you’re struggling to hold on to what you’re learning, it’s probably due to one of the following two issues:

  1. Study habits that don’t work for you: You might be studying in ways that you’ve seen work for other people, but that don’t work for you.

  2. Topics that don’t work for you: A big factor of information retention is the information itself: maybe the information you’re studying isn’t being built off what you already know, or isn’t being placed into context within your practice.

If you need more techniques to help you hold on to what you’ve learned, read this new article from The Handover: How can you retain what you’ve learned?

Who was Hermann Ebbinghaus?

Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who specialised in the field of memory in the mid-late 1800s. Aside from inventing the Forgetting Curve, he was also known for identifying the ‘serial position effect’ – humans are more likely to remember the first and last items in a list while forgetting the middle ones – and writing one of the most influential psychology texts ever published, ‘On Memory: Investigations into experimental psychology’.

What is the Forgetting Curve?

It’s probable that people have been struggling to retain information for millennia. Ebbinghaus essentially took a commonly understood phenomenon and quantified it, making it possible for us to track the retention of information and respond accordingly.

As such, Ebbinghaus investigated this idea and uncovered what he called the Forgetting Curve, publishing his findings in 1885. He argued that we forget what we learn unless we reinforce that knowledge with regular learning sessions.


Visual depiction of Hermann Ebbinghaus's Forgetting Curve.


The Forgetting Curve itself is a visual representation of this phenomenon: the peaks and troughs symbolise the effect that consolidation has upon information retention.

Though this idea was published in the late 1800s, it has stood the test of time. A recent study by Prof. J. Murre and Dr J. Dros of the University of Amsterdam has validated Ebbinghaus' findings over 130 years later (Murre et al, 2015). Other studies have also come up with similar findings, as well as additional insights: Dr S. Vogel and Prof. Dr L. Schwabe found that stress can make information retention even more difficult, thus interfering with the initial learning session, which can then have an effect on the person’s subsequent Forgetting Curve (Vogel et al, 2016).

How can you use the Forgetting Curve to your advantage?

Create an informed learning schedule

Now that you know about incremental consolidation, it’s a great idea to set yourself up by planning a learning session every few days. This is especially important if you’re trying to learn something new, such as a new technical skill that you’ll need if you’re transitioning to a new learning environment.

Make sure your learning resources are high quality

Don’t waste your time learning from resources that are put together in a way that doesn’t let you build off it. For example, if you read a 1,000-word article on COPD devices but come out the other end unsure how to relate it to your practice, then the resource probably isn’t working for you.

Ausmed understands how valuable your time is and wants you to feel rewarded for the effort you’ve invested in your learning. That’s why our learning modules vary in format and length to make sure you can curate your learning in a way that suits your timetable.

We also integrate principles of memory and retention into how we structure content. Ausmed’s collections of content based on a single topic or demographic of care are a great way to divide your learning into chunks and reinforce your learning on a subject through repeated sessions.

We want you to get the most out of your learning. We are always looking for new ways to make it easier for you to hold onto the latest information.

References

Murre, J.M.J. & Dros, J., 2015. ‘Replication and Analysis of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve.’ PLoS ONE. Vol. 10, no. 7. Accessed 14 June 2022 via https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0120644

Vogel, S. & Schwabe, L., 2016. ‘Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom.’ npj Science Learn. Vol. 1, no. 16011. Accessed 14 June 2022 via https://www.nature.com/articles/npjscilearn201611

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