By Dominic O’Brien – Eight Times World Memory Champion.

Having worked in many schools in the UK, I’ve noticed that much of what’s taught appears to be forgotten within twenty-four hours. 

According to Art Graesser, co-director of the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the University of Memphis research suggests that students retain as little as eight percent of a teacher’s lessons one week after they have been taught.

Graesser reasons that learners have a low tolerance threshold for boring or complex material. They take a passive role in learning opting for the easily absorbed knowledge rather than bothering to ask questions. The result is that most students give up. Before the information is embedded, rather than learning and revising as they go, students tend to cram near exams.

For most, studying is relearning information long after it was first taught and trying memorize it last minute by rote. I can remember doing exactly that when I was at school. 

However, for learning success, studying should be an ongoing process of topping up and reviewing the knowledge you’ve already learned.

Spinning Plates

A good analogy for the process of review is the old circus act of spinning plates. You’ve probably seen it before when the performer starts spinning plates balanced precariously on the ends of upright sticks, one at a time. 

After about ten or so plates are set up the first two or three start to wobble a bit. So, the performer goes back and re-spins them. He then sets up the next set of ten plates and spins them. Again, the first few start to wobble and the circus performer has to hurriedly run back to check them until eventually thirty or forty plates are spinning at the same time. There’s a precise art in knowing how many plates you can spin at one time without losing them completely.

A similar experience takes place when processing and memorising data and it’s an art getting to know what I call one’s ‘forgetting threshold’. How much information can you retain before you reach overload?

Ebbinghaus And the Forgetting Curve

One of the first people to carry out experiments on human memory was Herman Ebbinghaus in the late nineteenth century.

Ebbinghaus did experiments to determine what happens to recall after we finish a learning period. In other words, how we forget. There is some debate over the exact rate of decay for a memory and there are a number of factors to consider such as the relevance to your personal experiences, use of mnemonics, the difficulty of the material as well as physiological factors such as stress, lack of sleep, fatigue or ‘wellness’. An average graph is shown below. 

Note that the level of recall rises about ten minutes after learning, before dropping off exponentially with eighty per cent of detail lost in twenty-four hours. This seems counter-intuitive. Why would your recall go up a short while after learning? The reason is that the brain is assimilating the information. It is ‘sinking in’. How can we make use of this rise and what can be done to counteract the steep fall in the graph? The answer is to review.

So, review your notes straight after the event. Doing so will help you to retain eighty per cent or more of the information you were given in the first place. 

Then, memorize that information using the Link or Story Method or by mapping the elements in sequence along a route using the Journey Method. All these techniques are explained in my books and courses.

But to make sure that knowledge is retained in your long-term memory, you need to make several further reviews of it. Otherwise known as the Rule of Five which is the minimum amount of reviews that you should make in order for the knowledge to remain for long-term storage and retention. And these Five Reviews should be spaced out in the following way:

First review

Immediately after a period of learning and memorization. (Take a short break of no more than 10 minutes then review)

Second review

No later than twenty-four hours after the memorization. 

Third review

Depending on the amount and type of information, should take place no later than one week after the initial memorization.

Fourth review

Four weeks later 

Fifth review

Three to six months later.

This is spaced reviewing which Ebbinghaus called the ‘Distributed-Practice Effect’. 

What he discovered was that no matter how many times you review something, it’s far more efficient to distribute these reviews over a period of time rather than massing them altogether at a single time. Reviewing regularly is much more efficient revision practice than cramming.

I wish I had been aware of Ebbinhaus’ work when I was at school struggling to retain anything I was taught.