Forgetting curve: how to avoid the Ebbinghaus theory

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve represents the information that is forgotten over time if the memory is not worked on. Factors...
22 February 2024

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Forgetting curve: how to avoid the Ebbinghaus theory

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve represents the information that is forgotten over time if the memory is not worked on.

Factors such as the lack of relevance or meaning of the content, as well as its level of complexity, affect short and long term retention of information. 

The good news is that Ebbinghaus’ theory can be avoided. 

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what the forgetting curve is and provide you with a number of resources you can put into practice to help curb it.  


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What is the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve?

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is a graphical representation of the forgetting process that illustrates the increasing loss of information after it is received, unless measures are taken to enhance memory. 

The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) defined the forgetting curve theory in 1885 as part of his research into the psychology of memory. 

In his experiments, he showed that when people first learn something, most of the information is lost exponentially over the next few days. Similarly, after some time, the rate of loss slows down.

Factors Influencing the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

According to Ebbinghaus, the factors influencing this forgetting process are as follows.

Relevance of the information

When people feel that the information presented to them is relevant and meaningful, they attach greater importance to it and therefore retain it more easily. 

One way to make this information meaningful is to connect it to information that is already encoded in the receiver’s memory. 

In education, whether the learner has prior knowledge of data or not, if the information makes sense to them, they are more likely to focus on it and retain it. 

Elapsed time and complexity of content

This is where working memory comes into play, the memory that the person uses while learning and which can become long-term memory, if the information is of high quality and relevant

For this to happen, the memory must be stimulated long enough with educational content that is not too complex, because the greater the complexity, the more difficult it is to remember.

For this reason, according to research based on Ebbinghaus’ theory, it is advisable to divide complex content into elements with a limited amount of information in order to assimilate it gradually. 

By applying this methodology, it is easier for the student to build a solid foundation that is conducive to approaching increasingly complex topics.

The fact that it takes a long time to comprehend the material is an obstacle to the student understanding, integrating and making sense of it.

Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

Content Presentation

The right presentation of content is very important today, mostly, thanks to all the possibilities offered to the teacher by new technologies

Creating attractive, clear, flexible and structured content that adapts to the needs, timing and experience of each learner is one of the keys to long-term retention.

Other factors that influence the inability to retain information also respond to genetic causes, such as a better or worse predisposition to memory, or physiological causes, such as not getting enough sleep.

Finally, emotional states such as stress or anxiety negatively affect the memorization process.

How can we prevent the forgetting curve theory from coming true?

The transformation of education in today’s information societies and the new possibilities offered by ICT in the classroom make it easier for you to prevent the forgetting curve from coming true. 

Repeating the information

Ebbinghaus’s research gave clear results regarding the repetition of information. Doing so, especially on the first day of learning, helps to fix the concepts in your memory.

Similarly, periodically reviewing information helps to retain it and slow down the forgetting process, creating what is known as spaced learning.

Consider that, according to the German psychologist’s research, students who have attended a lecture retain only 75 % of what they learned immediately after the lecture is over. 

However, the lost 25 % can be recovered by working on long-term memory. 

Use mnemonic techniques

Mnemonics techniques are the ones that enhance learning by helping you remember better and faster. 

They can be word games, songs, images, feelings, rhymes and many other formats that create groupings of information that are easy to remember and that the brain can retrieve when needed.

What is the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

Create high quality, clear, relevant and comprehensive content

The relevance of the information is one of the factors that improves the memorization process, as we have already explained. 

Therefore, it is necessary that the content is quality, relevant, personalized and comprehensive. 

Here are 3 examples of how to contextualize content to make it relevant to the learner: 

  1. Content Contextualization. It consists of proposing an educational content linked to other previously learned content to consolidate certain data. 
  2. Content student. In this case, the aim is to link the content to the learner’s experience in order to reinforce the practical sense of the exercise. 
  3. Content World. This type of content provides supplemental information on a curricular topic. The goal is to spark the learner’s curiosity and interest while reinforcing the information they already have about the topic. 

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a model you can use to create this type of content. This methodology focuses on providing multiple ways to engage the learner, present the content and encourage learner participation.

Promote learning culture and interaction

Learning culture is based on learners sharing what they have learned and interacting with each other to reinforce knowledge. 

In this way, the learning process is broadened by the contribution of other people and other perspectives. 

Interaction also encourages learners to take an active role and increase their concentration. 

Dynamics such as gamification allow the introduction of games in education to engage students and improve retention of curricular content.

All of these resources can be integrated into digital environments that also allow you to diversify the channels of information delivery and interaction with content. 

To help you create safe and effective spaces for distance learning, Smowltech has developed our flexible proctoring plans that put the latest technological advances at your disposal. 

Do not hesitate to request a free demo so we can show you all our solutions to improve your educational methodologies.


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