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Memory 101: The Science of Forgetting

by Tiffany



When learning about memory, don't forget to remember Hermann Ebbinghaus! He was the first person to do scientific studies of forgetting. Hermann used himself as a subject, spending vast amounts of time trying to memorize endless lists of nonsense syllables and testing his memory on them. He found that he forgot most of what he learned during the first few hours of learning it.

But of course today, we know that meaningful information fades more slowly than nonsense syllables. The rate at which people forget or retain information also depends on what method is used to measure forgetting and remembering.

Retention is the proportion of learned information that is retained or remembered - the flip side of forgetting. In other words, how much you remember.



Measuring Memory: Recall, Recognition, Relearning

Recall

Recall is remembering without any external cues. For example, essay questions test recall of knowledge because nothing on a blank sheet of paper will jog the memory.


Recognition

Recognition is identifying learned information using external cues. For example, multiple-choice questions test recognition because the previously learned information is there on the page, along with other options. In general, recognition is easier than recall.


Relearning

When using the relearning method to measure retention, a researcher might ask a subject to memorize a long grocery list. She might measure how long he has to practice before he remembers every item. Suppose it takes him ten minutes. On another day, she gives him the same list again and measures how much time he takes to relearn the list. Suppose he now learns it in five minutes. He has saved five minutes of learning time, or 50 percent of the original time it took him to learn it. His savings score of 50 percent indicates that he retained 50 percent of the information he learned the first time.


Causes of Forgetting

Everyone forgets things. There are six main reasons for forgetting: ineffective encoding, decay, interference, retrieval failure, motivated forgetting, and physical injury or trauma.

Ineffective Encoding


The way information is encoded affects the ability to remember it. Processing information at a deeper level makes it harder to forget. If the information is not encoded properlyâ€"such as if the student simply skims over the textbook while paying more attention to the TV-it is more likely to be forgotten.

Decay

According to decay theory, memory fades with time. Decay explains the loss of memories from sensory and short-term memory. People might easily remember their first day in junior high school but completely forget what they learned in class last Tuesday.


Interference

Interference theory has a better account of why people lose long-term memory. According to this theory, people forget information because of interference from other information they've learned. There are two types of interference: retroactive and proactive.

  • Retroactive interference: happens when newly learned information makes people forget old information.

  • Proactive interference happens when old information makes people forget newly learned information.




Retrieval Failure

Forgetting may also result from failure to retrieve information in memory, if the wrong sort of retrieval cue is used. For example, Dan might not remember the name of his fifth-grade teacher. But the teacher's name might suddenly pop into Dan's head if he visits his old elementary school and sees his fifth-grade classroom. The classroom would then be acting as a context cue for remembering his teacher's name.


Motivated Forgetting

Psychologist Sigmund Freud proposed people forget because they push unpleasant thoughts and feelings deep into their unconscious. He called this phenomenon repression. The idea that people forget things they don’t want to remember is also called motivated forgetting or psychogenic amnesia.


Physical Injury or Trauma

  • Anterograde: amnesia is the inability to remember events that occur after an injury or traumatic event.

  • Retrograde: amnesia is the inability to remember events that occurred before an injury or traumatic event.




References: Wikipedia, Sparknotes,Gaetan Lee, Ginger Blokey

3 Comments
    sglc
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    Ellen M SamuelsMon, 27 Apr 2009 23:18:26 -0000

    Using the concept of reinforcement to retain information learned has been the best way for me to remember anything I have learned - especially in preparatioin for exams. I agree with both Kathy and Lucyinthesky.

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    lucyinthesky
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    TiffanyMon, 22 Sep 2008 22:18:28 -0000

    Thanks Kathy! I recall in high school, the teachers I found most effective tended to repeat important phrases or concepts over and over again. I not only remembered it longer, but I also understood their concepts more and continue to have the ability to remember them even today.

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    KathyGreen
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    Kathy GreenMon, 22 Sep 2008 21:52:52 -0000

    I really enjoyed the relevance of this to cooperative learning. For good retention of new learning students ned to interact with the material at least twice and in 2 different ways(double loop learning). For example, if a teacher lectures, students have a much better chance of remembering if a good question is posed, the student has a chance to think about the question, write some ideas and then share these ideas with a partner. In this scenario the student is actually interacting with the material 4 times.

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