How to Improve Learning
“Two thirds of what we learn vanishes from our brains within an hour,” according to research by German philosopher Hermann Ebbinghaus, reports Newsweek International in an article titled “Truly Total Recall.” In 2011, organizations in the United States spent $156.2 billion on employee learning and development. If we are to believe the results of Ebbinghaus’ research, most of that investment was wasted because shortly after the training, employers forgot what they learned – they did not apply what they learned – therefore it’s important to know how to improve your memory, which leads to how to improve learning.
In a recent webinar, “Leveraging the Latest in Brain Science to Deliver the Next Generation of E-Learning,” researcher Alice Kim offered some tips on how to improve your memory, but before I present the tips, it important to understand the curve of forgetting. I know that you must be asking yourself “the curve of what?” Most people know about the learning curve, but that’s not the case with the forgetting curve.
The Curve of Forgetting
During the years 1879-80 and 1883-84, Hermann Ebbinghaus worked on discovering the rate of forgetting both meaningful and meaningless information during the first 30 days after it had been learned. Ebbinghaus discovered that “Forgetting proceeds very rapidly during the first twenty minutes after learning. And, indeed, more than one-half of the material learned is forgotten during the first hour.” Critics did not like the way that Ebbinghaus conducted his experiment, and results of duplicating the study have shown different results. Although the rate of forgetting is different among researchers, it is still very high.
How to Improve Learning
There are three strategies to improve learning:
- Repeated Retrievals: Practicing repeated retrieval of information leads to better learning. Repeated retrieval is asking yourself questions about what you have just learned. This process forces you to think about the information.
- Spacing: Your long-term retention of information learned is improved as you increase the spacing between repeated retrieval. What that means is that say for example you want to remember the information you just learned for the next 20 years, you would retrieve the information shortly after for the first time, then every few months, then once every year. That way the information is cemented into your long-term memory.
- Deep Encoding: The more deeply and meaningfully you process information, the more likely you are to remember it. Some of the ways to do that is to visualize what you have learned, repeatedly retrieve the information, link the new information to what you already know and break the new information into chunks.
Age and lifestyle affect the brain and cognition. In addition, your brain is plastic throughout your life so you have a lot of control over your cognitive status. There are two types of memories, declarative and non-declarative. Declarative memory is revealed by inferentially retrieving information such as facts and knowledge – you are declaring what you know. Non-declarative memory is demonstrated by successfully doing something, such as riding a bike, or driving a car. It is unconscious memories such as skills and behaviours.
By understanding the curve of forgetting, and using the strategies outlined, you will be able to improve your memory, and improve learning.
Implication and Application to Improve the Way You Learn
- Take good notes when learning meaningful information.
- Review what you learned later in the day if possible, by asking yourself questions about the information.
- Relearn what you have forgotten.
- For important information repeatedly retrieve the information as outlined above.
For more detailed information on the curve of forgetting and Hermann Ebbinghaus’ experiment: The American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Jan., 1913), pp. 8-32, “The Curve of Forgetting,” E. O. Finkenbinder.
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