The TEFL Life: A TEFL blog

a story about bad grammar and non-existent punctuation and my TEFL adventures

Master’s take-away: the memory curve

We all spend a fair amount of our lives in a classroom or studying or trying to learn something. I have spent almost 17 years of my life trying to make sure discrete bits of information don’t fall out of my brain the minute I stop to make a cup of tea. 17 years! And then I think about how much of that I remember, and I mean really remember, and I kinda wonder what I should’ve been doing instead (writing the great novel? climbing kiliminjaro? the list is endless).

Happily, though, there are a few random things that will always be bouncing around inside your head. You will probably never forget the value of Pi, the year Jan van Riebeeck “discovered” the Cape or amo amas amat, which is great for pub quizzes but not much else. It’s the really useful things that we want to remember that we need to take care of and safeguard against deterioration.

One thing that I will always keep with me from my Master’s degree, is the memory, or forgetting, curve. Karl Ebbinghaus came up with this graph to show how new information is lost over time. This is common sense – we all know that you need to repeat or rehearse information or come into contact with it a few times before it will stick, so to speak. But what this graph quantifies for us and how it will help us, is that it shows exactly when the decay will take place.

Have a look:

So we can see that the first time we learn a word, in the case of language learning, it will be forgotten very quickly. To counteract this forgetting, we need to review the word basically immediately. The next time, it should be reviewed a bit later and the next time even later. In other words, the gaps between the revisions should get longer and longer because while your forgetting will be most severe in the beginning, the rate is exponential so that the rate of forgetting decreases with time.

Bu what is so magical is that every time you review the word, your retention goes back to 100% but the rate of forgetting is less than before because the memory is stronger. So every time you learn a new word, it’s remembered better. Like this:

Now, what very clever, technological-types have been doing is designing software which uses this algorithm to help us learn better. Anki and Duolingo are just two applications which are proving to be both popular and effective. Of course, you actually have to use it for it be effective (no osmosis apps yet), but it will present language to you at the most optimal  time for your learning. They’re free too, so if you don’t believe me go try them for yourself.

Now why didn’t I spend those 17 years doing something as useful as this research?


6 comments on “Master’s take-away: the memory curve

  1. Jonathan Caswell
    June 3, 2015


    • Kirsten C
      June 3, 2015

      It definitely does. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Just use the same language in different situations – it’s what we do in language anyway.

      Thanks for the reblog 🙂

  2. Jonathan Caswell
    June 3, 2015

    Reblogged this on By the Mighty Mumford and commented:

  3. Pingback: to sleep, perchance to dream: the effects of sleep on learning | this is it

  4. richardosborne14
    June 16, 2015

    This is a great method to bring to light. I’ve read a little on Spaced Repetition and the results are amazing. The problem is taking into consideration that words are often not reproduced from memory as solitary units but as conversational ‘chunks’ (check out Michael Lewis – The Lexical Approach). I like to use memory cards with cues and contextual clues related to a previously discussed subject, get them chunking! Yes, that sounds weird…

  5. Kirsten C
    June 16, 2015

    Absolutely – by words I usually mean chunks. Not so effective to learn words in isolation! Also, by revising how the words were used in previous lessons it automatically puts them in a context. I’ll do a few more posts in relation to theory and application – keep reading 🙂

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This entry was posted on June 2, 2015 by in General TEFL and tagged , , , , , .
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