Why Our Students Forget and What It Means for How We Teach Writing

Let’s start with a test:

  1. What is something you read in the last 24 hours? Anything at all. A book, an article, a poem. Now, try to remember it in as much detail as possible.
  2. Next, think about something you read last week. What do you remember of that?
  3. Lastly, think about something you read last month. What do you remember of that? Can you even remember what you read last month?

So, how did you do? The odds are that if you are like most people you can likely remember the thing from the last 24 hours pretty well, a few scattered bits of the piece from last week, and almost nothing or even nothing from the piece from last month (if you can even remember what you read last month).

The reason I can predict these results with relative certainty is thanks to a psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus who did a series of experiments focused on forgetting in 1885. The result of the experiments was something he called the forgetting curve, which looks like this:

My crude rendering of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

In this curve, we see just how ruthless our brains are when it comes to clearing the memory storehouses of information that doesn’t deem as important anymore. The exact specifics of the curve depend on the person and content, but there are some attributes of it that are agreed upon as being nearly universal:

  • We start forgetting something as soon as we learn it.
  • The slope of forgetting is the most intense in the first 24 hours after we’ve learned something.
  • After a week, most people remember only a small fraction of something; within a month it is not uncommon to remember no specifics at all.   

The Forgetting Curve explains why the details of that book you devoured at the beach last summer have all but vanished and why our students often suffer from amnesia when it comes to remembering our classes. And yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story because we can still remember dozens of quotes from The Outsiders verbatim even a decade after teaching it, and our students, while sometimes forgetful, can often remember an incredible amount.

So why is it that sometimes humans forget nearly everything and other times they can engage in extraordinary feats of mental recall magic? According to the Forgetting Curve, there is a pretty simple explanation: thoughtful repetition.

The hundreds of studies that have confirmed the Forgetting Curve since its discovery in 1885, have also confirmed that when we revisit or retrieve that information in thoughtful ways, our memories go from Hyde to Jekyll as the repetition strengthens those connections between neurons where those memories are stored.

Here is what the Forgetting Curve looks like when we encounter the information multiple times:

A rough Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve with each color representing a thoughtful revisiting of the information

Any revisiting of a thought, memory, or concept generally strengthens the neural connections, increasing retention, though it works best when we do two things:

  1. Space out the revisiting over different days (aka no cramming).
  2. Weave the information together with other related ideas/skills (this is called interleaving) when we revisit it.

As teachers, we may not all know the name Ebbinghaus, but we all know the curve well. This is why we recap previous lessons, have students summarize notes at the end of a lecture, and just generally circle back to key ideas over and over. But as writing teachers, we far too often forget it exists. We mark something in a paper or say something in a conference once, and assume it will stick, when, according to Ebbinghaus it probably will be gone before the sun sets.

In my classes, I’ve been working to fix this. My rule is simple:

If something matters, we revisit it three or four times at a minimum.

This means that…

Even with this, there is still plenty of forgetting. We are working with young writers after all. But there is also a lot more of remembering the things that matter, and I’ve found the revisiting has also been very useful in helping students create more coherent narratives of how they are developing as writers.

So the next time you pass along important information to your students, make sure the one thing you don’t forget is Ebbinghaus and his curve!

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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12 responses to “Why Our Students Forget and What It Means for How We Teach Writing”

  1. […] I defined the term metacognition; and just today before we took notes I told them about the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve that I mentioned last […]

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  2. […] feeling is understandable, but unfortunately our brains are designed to forget nearly everything we only see once, meaning that if feedback only plays the role of a short cameo, never to be mentioned again, its […]

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  3. […] as I’ve written about how cramming too much feedback into a single paper or cramming too much content into a single lesson or unit paradoxically often leads to less learning. Sure, the amount covered by the teacher is more, but […]

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  4. […] now have a culprit for what was going wrong: I was falling victim to the Forgetting Curve, which is the subject of one of the more popular posts of this blog and can be summed up like […]

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  5. […] the amount of time we allocate to something generally signals its importance to students and revisiting something is often a cognitive prerequisite to truly learning it. Sarah’s approach checks both these boxes, as it makes student reflection and goals regular […]

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  6. […] are evolving as writers. Plus, doing this means that students revisit our feedback multiple times, which generally leads to better understanding and memory of it too. My favorite tool for doing this is having students set goals for the next unit by looking at the […]

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  7. […] have a whole post on the background and specifics of the Forgetting Curve, but it can be summed up like this: We forget nearly everything we encounter only once, with well […]

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  8. […] The approach I plan to take in my classes is similar. To start, we are going to make a massive list of what we’ve covered and put it up on a piece of butcher paper. The hope is that this will act as a living artifact and reminder of all that has been learned, while also quietly reinforcing those lessons (as we learn best by revisiting ideas again and again). […]

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  9. […] topics to teach my students about is the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve (for more on it, click here), which lays out a clear case that our brains are designed to forget, not remember, most things. […]

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  10. […] said before that a common misunderstanding of our brains is that they are built for remembering things (hence the design of  many of the classic instructional methods like lectures, textbooks, and […]

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  11. […] learn. Generally, we must return to something between 3-5 separate times before it sticks (see the Forgetting Curve post for more on […]

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  12. […] I bring this up to say that human memory is a rather funny thing. We have some significant and well-documented limitations—limitations that grow worse during overwhelming tasks like parenting young children or teaching five sections of 30+ students—and yet we are incredibly good at convincing ourselves that we will definitely remember something later, even if (cough, cough) we are someone who has written about our limitations of memory here or here.  […]

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