by Jeff Haden / © 2021, Mansueto Ventures, LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
A producer for a television business show called and asked if I was available. He described the theme of the segment and asked if I had any ideas. I offered some possibilities.
“That sounds great,” he said. “We’re live in 30 minutes. And I need you to say exactly what you just said.” “Ugh,” I thought. I’m not great at repeating exactly what I just said. So I started rehearsing.
Ten minutes later, he called [back]. I almost asked him if we could postpone that conversation so I could keep rehearsing, but I figured since I had already run through what I would say two times, I would be fine.
Unfortunately, I was right. I was fine. Not exceptional. Just ... fine. I totally forgot one of the major points I wanted to make.
Which, according to Hermann Ebbinghaus, the pioneer of quantitative memory research, should have come as no surprise.
Ebbinghaus is best known for two major findings: the forgetting curve and the learning curve.
The forgetting curve describes how new information fades away. Once you’ve “learned” something new, the fastest drop occurs in just 20 minutes; after a day, the curve levels off.*
Within minutes, nearly half of what you’ve “learned” has disappeared.
According to Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn, what we learn doesn’t necessarily fade; it just becomes less accessible.
In my case, I hadn’t forgotten a key point. I just didn’t access that information when I needed it.
Working with our memory
Ebbinghaus would have agreed with Carey: He determined that even when we think we’ve forgotten something, some portion of what we learned is still filed away. Which makes the process of relearning a lot more efficient.
As Ebbinghaus writes:
Suppose that [a] poem is [re]learned by heart. It then becomes evident that, although [it seems] totally forgotten, it still in a certain sense exists. The second learning requires noticeably less time or a noticeably smaller number of repetitions than the first.
That, in a nutshell, is the power of spaced repetition.
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