We talk about learning sciences as something that has appeared recently or is new to the educational world – this cannot be further from the truth. In this article, we look back to the 1880s, specifically at Hermann Ebbinghaus’s work. Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who specialised in memory and learning. His most famous experiment is the ‘forgetting curve’, which we will use to reflect on the importance of regular revision of your work.
The forgetting curve
In developing the forgetting curve, Ebbinghaus noticed a correlation between memory retention, the strength of a memory, and the passing of time. To test this correlation, he taught himself ‘gibberish’. In other words, he created phrases made up of a sequence of random letters and taught them to himself. He performed multiple tests to see how well he could remember the information after different time periods, e.g. one day, two days, etc. had elapsed.
He found that retention of information decreases rapidly after the first day of having learned the information. To counter this loss of memory, he revised some of the nonsense phrases at regular intervals both after and on the first day of learning them. He then found that the more he revised the phrases, the less frequently he had to revise them, and he could remember them for longer periods of time after he had learned them initially.
While this is an old experiment, modern science confirms the findings, and the forgetting curve is still an important theory in the learning sciences today. The real question, though, is what this story means for your learning journey.
Important things to remember when revising
The most important thing we can learn from Ebbinghaus’ experiment is that your memory and retention of information decreases rapidly after the first day of learning something. Therefore, revise the most important parts of the information you learned within 24 hours of learning it.
Revise your work multiple times – Ebbinghaus’s work also helps us understand that you will need to revise your work multiple times before you can remember it well. There is, unfortunately, no magic number of revisions, but the more you can review the work, the more easily you will be able to remember it. This ability to recall information may seem less important while you are actively learning the work for the first time, but the more information you can remember, the easier it is to prepare for examinations as you can focus on and review the most important areas instead of all the information.
Avoid using the ‘oh yeah’ method of revision – We have all been there, paging through your textbook, and as you recognise the information, you mutter, “oh yeah, I know this” in your mind. When you get to the test or examination, that ‘oh yeah’ turns into ‘oh no’ when you can’t remember the information. There is a big difference between recognising the information while reading, watching, or listening to it and being able to recall it from your memory when you need to. When you revise, try to remember the information actively instead of just looking at an answer or solution presented in the information.
Some tools to help you
As we just mentioned, we don’t want to recognise our work – we want to remember it; otherwise, the time we spent on revision is wasted. Here are some tools that can help you:
- Flashcards – a flashcard is a simple piece of paper on which you write the problem or the question on the front of the card and the answer on the back. When you use flashcards, you challenge yourself to remember the answer before turning over the card, which means you are using your brain’s pathways to retrieve the information from your memory.
Using flashcards is fantastic for learning and, if you can, you should make yourself a deck of flashcards for all your subjects. They work very well when you have to learn vocabulary and definitions in particular. They can also work in other subjects like Mathematics if you have to learn facts, such as when to use sin, cos, or tan (ratios of the sides of a right-angled triangle). It may take some time and effort to create your flashcard decks, but your brain will thank you when exam times arrive.
- Mnemonics – a mnemonic device is a learning technique that helps you retrieve information from your memory using certain cues. One of the most famous ones is the knuckle mnemonic, where each knuckle represents a month with 31 days, and the spaces between the knuckles represent a month with 30 days. Another example is using the phrase ‘never eat sour watermelons’ to remember the points of the compass, where each word in the phrase stands for north, east, south, and west, respectively. There are many mnemonics devices, but the advantage of mnemonic devices is that you can create your own. Just remember that you should not re-use a mnemonic device; otherwise, you might forget what it is helping you remember.
Also read: Smart study hacks for the exams
Benefits of revision
Ebbinghaus shows us that it is vital that we review our work regularly. Besides remembering your work better, revision will also reduce stress and anxiety before tests and exams because you will already know a lot of your work.
Tutors and parents can also help identify the most important parts of the work to ensure that flashcard decks don’t become too large and impractical or that the number of mnemonics created doesn’t become unfeasible.
Learning doesn’t need to be stressful – if you are disciplined in your revision, your efforts will bear fruit.