Henry Roediger [ Washington University ] points out that Psychologists have been studying learning and memory with experimental methods for roughly 130 years — since Hermann Ebbinghaus compiled his Curve of Forgetting experiments. What changes have been translated from Basic Research into widespread educational applications? What difference has all this research made for the average 4th grader?

None.

Nothing at all has changed in Education as a function of anything that cognitive psychologists have done in the last 130 years.

We are talking about a tremendous amount of research done by many people.

Q. What can we do to more effectively translate research for practical application?

A. First of all — we can familiarize ourselves with the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus. The human brain is not like the computer’s “brain”. A computer will reliably “remember” books and images in the blink of an eye. The human brain, on the other hand, systematically forgets. As a rule. Unless you insist. In ways that we don’t fully understand yet. Comprehending the problem of forgetting is key to approaching the many challenges learning and memory.

Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who pioneered the experimental study of memory, and is known for his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect.

He began his groundbreaking memory & learning research in 1879, at the University of Berlin.

In 1885, he published his seminal “On Memory”, in which he described the experiments he conducted on himself to map the processes of learning and forgetting.

Ebbinghaus systematically memorized lists of nonsense syllables — to make sure he didn’t leverage meaning and association — so that he could measure the rates of recall we can reasonably expect from rote memorization.

This is the classic metacognition study that launched the systematic investigation of how well we really know what we think we know — because we successfully recalled it once.

After he had successfully memorized a list of nonsense syllables, he took a series of tests to measure how much he’d remembered or forgotten over a series of carefully timed intervals.

Within one hour he’d forgotten more than half of what he’d originally been able to fully recall.

From 100% to less than 50% recall in the space of one hour.

Eight hours later, he took a third test to find that an additional 10% was lost.

Finally, after a month, he took a fourth test — and found that he’d lost a total of 80% of what had originally been 100% recall.

And yet, it’s quite common for people to expect themselves to remember something after reading it just once — without even trying to memorize it.


FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Eric Prunier

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