Remembering Ebbinghaus

Among the speakers at researchED‘s lead network day in Haninge on Saturday was Pedro de Bruyckere, educational scientist and author of Urban Myths About Learning and Education.

His presentation on the basic ingredients of education highlighted seven principles of learning for educators to keep in mind.

7 principles of learning

  1. Learning takes time, motivation and effort (we were reminded of Gladwell’s 10 000 hour rule or the often cited 8-10 years of focussed practice required to become an expert in any given field)
  2. Concentration span is short (aim for 8-10 minute slots of learning)
  3. Distributed practice is more effective (spaced repetition is better for long term memory retention than learning in blocks)
  4. Prior knowledge is crucial (the continued relevance of Vygotsky‘s scaffolding)
  5. Multimedia works (engage the learner with audio and visuals but beware of dual channel theory and cognitive load)
  6. Active mind (good study habits are key. We learned that the common practice of simply highlighting text is flawed. It is ‘the equivalent of parking knowledge and then remembering where you left it’, which is not to say you remember the actual knowledge)
  7. Have a vision (schools must have a coherent vision of learning. Teaching in Finland and Korea is very different yet both yield results. Schools must decide which vision to follow for all students)

All of these points deserve reflection and their practical implications for the classroom considered. It was point 3, however, that I found myself reflecting on most.

I had encountered Ebbinghaus in my days as a student teacher but, ironically, had forgotten (or misplaced) this theory and its implications for learning.

Hermann Ebbinhaus was a German psychologist who studied the rate at which we forget newly acquired knowledge. 1 hour after leaving our classrooms, students have already forgotten about 50% of the material we have delivered. By the time the following week’s lesson comes round, most of what we have taught in class has been forgotten. It’s a depressing thought.

Ebbinghaus-Forgetting-Curve (1).png

We forget 50% of what we learn within 1 hour of learning it unless we put it into practice or are continuously supported and provided with access to knowledge.This is perhaps not surprising and it’s certainly not new: Ebbinghaus was writing in 1885 and this view on memory and learning has been around since Confucius was a boy.

Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand – Confucius


Involvement in the form of ‘spaced repetition’ can take many forms: quizzes, group discussion, demonstrations, access to presentation slides, YouTube summaries, further reading tips, etc.

The effect on retention with spaced repetition of learning is marked.


Spacing is something David Didau has also written about and espoused in his talk at last year’s IEG regional conference. There is value in giving students enough time to forget what they have learned then learning it again. This spacing technique involves the students regularly re-encountering information delivered in class. Didau cites Graham Nuthall (The Hidden Lives of Learners) in noting that “new information needs to be encountered on at least three different occasions to be retained.” This has practical implications for how we design course plans and plan assessment at the start of the year.


Didau develops this further and talks about the merits of ‘interleaving’ when designing course plans. This practice of studying related skills in parallel instead of in traditional blocks has gained popularity in recent years with a number of studies indicating the benefits to memory retention. Rather than focussing on one skill at a time, learners intersperse their learning with other skills. For example, rather than simply learning to master a forehand return in tennis, learners would interrupt the learning of this skill and focus on a backhand return before moving onto a lob and then returning to mastering the forehand shot.

Interestingly, according to professor Robert Bjork of UCLA, block learners appear to perform better (or at least ‘look better’) during their learning than those who learn through interleaving. However, in the long term, interleaving has the greatest impact.

You can watch Bjork explain the subject of interleaving here.

Bjork’s example concerns motor skills in the learning of badminton and it is easy to see how the teaching of a sport could apply interleaving in the design of a course. He notes that the approach can work with conceptual learning too and I would be interested in seeing how this could be applied to a subject like English or the social sciences.

It would take a courageous teacher to forego the affirmation of seeing students performing successfully in their block-styled lessons to placing faith in an alternative approach which promises greater rewards in the long term.

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