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The Forgetting Curve: The Surprising Science That Explains Why Weekly Meetings Work So Well

Ari

Ari Freuman

on May 31, 2024
The Weekly Meeting Takes Advantage of the Forgetting Curve

In the world of tutoring, the weekly meeting may feel like an arbitrary interval that aligns with our seven-day week. Yet, there’s fascinating psychological and educational science underpinning this choice. This interval might actually be close to the optimal interval for learning concepts and skills. But, to learn how to optimally remember, we must first understand forgetting—or, more specifically—the Forgetting Curve.

The Key To Remembering Starts With The “Forgetting Curve”

The concept of the “forgetting curve” was first introduced by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 19th century. Ebbinghaus was interested in how long we remember new information. He found that we lose information over time, particularly when we don’t apply any effort to retain it. This notion is particularly relevant in test prep, where retaining a wide array of  concepts and skills is crucial—because there’s a neat twist.

Strategically timed review sessions during the period when information begins to fade from memory—but before it’s completely forgotten—can drastically enhance a student’s retention. This principle is supported by a wealth of research in cognitive psychology, particularly studies on spaced repetition and retrieval practice. For instance, a landmark study by Cepeda et al. (2006) in the journal “Psychological Science” found that spaced intervals between learning sessions significantly improve long-term memory retention, far more than when sessions are clustered together. These reviews reactivate and strengthen the neural connections associated with the learned material, a phenomenon documented by Maguire et al. (2000) in their study on brain plasticity, showing that repeated activation of specific neural pathways enhances their efficiency and durability.

Each repetition not only prevents forgetting but also embeds the knowledge more securely. Research by Karpicke and Roediger (2008) in the “Journal of Experimental Psychology” demonstrates that retrieval practice, which includes recalling information at spaced intervals, increases long-term retention by up to six times compared to traditional study methods. This process transforms what might have been a fleeting memory into a robust and durable part of the student’s arsenal for test day, turning temporary knowledge into permanent learning assets. Such scheduling effectively leverages the natural rhythms of memory decay and renewal, ensuring optimal readiness and confidence on exam day.

What This Means For Parents and Students: Space Out Sessions; Don’t Cram Them in

Worried parents sometimes ask if their child can meet two or three times a week. “More sessions are better than fewer,” they reason. While this is mostly correct, it’s crucial to add sessions optimally, following the science. By opting for a longer, more spaced-out schedule in planning sessions, we derive greater value from those extra sessions. At Ivy Tutor, we refer to this approach as creating a “longer runway” for the test. This longer runways provides more opportunities to strengthen the neural pathways that enhance test day performance. Parents who are tempted to cram sessions before the test are often delighted to learn that we prefer to space those sessions out comfortably for the next test date. However, it’s not just about the forgetting curve—this is just one of several benefits that a longer runway can provide in the test prep context:

  1. Enhanced Memory Retention: As mentioned, spreading learning over a longer period allows for the natural decay of memory to set in, which, counterintuitively, strengthens retention upon relearning. Each review or follow-up meeting refreshes knowledge and cements it more deeply into long-term memory.
  2. Deeper Understanding: A longer timeline gives individuals the chance to delve deeper into each topic or skill, leading to a richer understanding. Participants aren’t just memorizing; they’re integrating and connecting concepts in a meaningful way.
  3. Stress Reduction: Reducing the need to cram sessions close to deadlines alleviates stress and anxiety, which can obstruct effective learning and cognitive function. A relaxed learning atmosphere enhances cognitive processes like problem-solving and critical thinking.
  4. Flexibility in Teaching and Adaptation: More time between sessions gives educators and leaders the flexibility to adapt their teaching based on the progress and feedback of their attendees. This adaptability ensures that learning is always aligned with the needs of the group, making education more personalized and effective.
  5. Building Sustainable Learning Habits: A longer runway encourages the development of sustained learning habits rather than short bursts of effort. This promotes lifelong learning and ensures that individuals are continually developing their skills and knowledge base.

 

By embracing a longer runway for educational meetings and sessions, educators can not only improve the immediate outcomes of their programs but also instill a culture of continuous, stress-free learning. This strategic approach aligns with how our brains naturally operate, leveraging the forgetting curve and spacing effect to maximize long-term retention and understanding. You can learn more about the Forgetting Curve here.

Sources:

Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Science, 17(3), 249-255. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01693.x

Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2008). The critical importance of retrieval for learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138(1), 469-486. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-3445.138.1.84

Maguire, E. A., Woollett, K., & Spiers, H. J. (2006). London taxi drivers and bus drivers: A structural MRI and neuropsychological analysis. Neuropsychologia, 44(15), 2867-2877. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.05.037

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Ari

Ari Freuman

Ari began his journey into test prep while working on his Master’s degree in Psychology at SUNY New Paltz and continued through his second Master’s in Statistics. Thanks to insights from his graduate-level studies, Ari became one of the top private tutors in the New York metropolitan era, where he earned a reputation as the original “Ivy Tutor.” Ari decided to create Ivy Tutor when he realized how difficult it was, at any price point, to find tutors who could reliably help students reach their scoring potential.

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