Forgetting is part of our nature

By Educ320 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

You didn’t tell us to read that chapter.

I didn’t know there was a test today!

I was supposed to take out the garbage?

How often do we share an important piece of information with our students — or children or colleagues or friends, for that matter — and find the next day, they’ve completely forgotten?

It’s so infuriating. How many times have I said: I just told you that yesterday!

I remember the telling so clearly — where I stood, how I said it, how I specifically made eye contact for emphasis. But to the listener(s), it’s a vague, hazy event at best, nothing that really stood out in the flood of daily sound bytes.

It’s easy, as a teacher (or parent), to leap to the conclusion that our teenagers are intentionally forgetting, or worse yet, not listening to us in the first place. We become angry and frustrated, and the situation can quickly deteriorate.

But would we feel differently if we recognized that forgetting is simply part of how our brains work?

Over 100 years ago, Hermann Ebbinghaus revealed the “forgetting curve,” and it’s been confirmed repeatedly by psych research. In general, people forget about 70% of what they are told within 24 hours if they don’t intentionally review or use the information.

It’s our brain’s way of paring down unimportant information and keeping us efficient. (Thanks, brain!)

The internet is filled with tricks for overcoming the “forgetting curve” and training yourself to remember better: Take notes longhand. Think about how what you’re hearing applies to your life. Review your notes within a few hours. Explain what you learned to a colleague or friend.

Those are all solid strategies — but they only work for a motivated learner. They only work if you really want to remember. Not necessarily true for all of our students.

So how can we overcome the “forgetting curve” and trick our students into remembering what they’ve learned? And can we get them to build lasting memories — or is June the best we can hope for? (According to this EdWeek article, even students who master material for final exams mostly forget it by September.)

The answer lies in understanding the way memory works — and why some memories hold up over time.

First, consider why some things are easy to remember. It’s easy to remember the route you took to school or work, especially if it was different than your usual route. It’s also easy to remember an argument you had with a friend — thinking about reasoning seems to tap into a deeper level of processing, and emotion sears events into memory. It’s also easy to remember a compelling story. It’s been years since I read The Kite Runner, but I still remember the most minute details, like how the kite flyers hands bled from controlling the strings coated in broken glass.

The common denominators? We remember experiences better than words, novelty better than routine, details better than summaries, and things that are deeply meaningful to us we remember best of all. These all happen without extra effort on our part.

We can use all of these observations to build better “remembering” in our students.

If we want students to deeply encode what they are learning, we should let them experience what they’re learning — through simulations and debates, for example — rather than lecturing them.

We should also make learning events emotionally compelling — by using detailed stories or giving students the opportunity to discuss and share their own ideas. 

And we can make learning relevant. One study — I came across it in Make Me! — found teachers only explain relevance to their students about 3% of the time. 

Not only will our students remember better, but we’ll be a lot less frustrated.

Read more about these teaching strategies in Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers (Stenhouse, 2018).

Follow me on Twitter @MarthaSRush