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Forgetting Is Natural, but Scientists Say You Can Do This To Slow It Down

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Researchers also warn against common learning misconceptions, such as learning must feel easy in order to work.

New research shows how learning can delay forgetting.

according to Iowa Psychology professor Shana Carpenter says that whether you’re trying to pass an exam or starting a new pastime, combining two strategies — intervals and search practice — is key to success.

Carpenter is the lead author of a recently published study that reviews more than a century’s worth of learning research. nature reviews psychology.

“Although the benefits of practicing spacing and retrieval have been confirmed time and time again in lab, classroom, and workplace studies, the reason for presenting this study is that these two techniques are not sufficiently prevalent. You’ll find that learning increases dramatically if they’re constantly utilized,” Carpenter said.

In their study, Carpenter and her coauthors describe spacing as a way to learn incrementally over time. It’s the exact opposite of studying the night before a test. In one study, a medical student who underwent repeated surgical training for three weeks performed better on exams two weeks later and her one year later than students who underwent the same training all at once.

Shanna Carpenter, Cassidy Whitehead, Kaelyn Nichols

Psychology professor Shanna Carpenter works with Cassidy Whitehead (left) and Kaelyn Nichols, two senior psychology majors at Iowa State University.Credit: Shana Carpenter/Iowa State University

According to Carpenter, there are no set rules for how much time elapses between practice sessions. However, research shows that after forgetting some (but not all) of the information, it’s beneficial to check it again.

Retrieval practice is an approach that involves recalling past learning. It comes in a variety of formats, including flashcards, practice tests, and open-ended writing prompts, to help students identify knowledge gaps. The author of this article emphasizes that people who check their answers for errors and receive immediate feedback learn better.

Over 200 studies show that, in general, you retain more information long-term when you practice recall, compared to non-retrieval methods (such as rereading textbooks).

The authors argue that people who combine spacing exercises with searching exercises are most likely to remember information.

“Forgetting is so natural. You can’t forget it if you try, but you can slow it down with retrieval exercises and intervals,” Carpenter said.

Highlighters and the illusion of learning

Carpenter says erroneous beliefs about learning are part of the reason retrieval exercises and intervals are not more widely used.

“Perhaps the number one misconception is that learning has to feel easy to be effective, but that’s just not true. You persevere through those challenges more than if it felt much easier.” but you can learn more sustainably and effectively,” Carpenter said.

Just highlighting or rereading the textbook feels easier than writing answers to essay exercises. But without a knowledge check when trying to retrieve the learned information, there is a high risk of falling into what the author calls the “learning illusion”.

Carpenter admits that many people don’t like making mistakes or realizing they don’t understand the material as well as they thought they did. It can stir anxiety, fear of failure, or other emotions you want to avoid. Ultimately, though, you are more likely to have to face what you don’t know when the stakes are higher, such as during exams or presentations at work.

bring into the classroom

Carpenter says he uses digital tools (such as online practice quizzes and clicker questions) to incorporate search practice and spacing into college classes, but how to bring these strategies into the classroom? We have others, too.

She gives the example of an elementary school math teacher whose technique was emphasized at a recent conference. A few days after the fractions lesson, the teacher asked the students to share whatever they remembered about fractions. It was a free and communal activity.

“The more we talked, the more we learned, and the kids were excited to talk about fractions,” said Carpenter.

She shares another story of a middle school teacher who regularly projects exercises from previous lessons onto the screen. She writes down her answers on notecards and reviews them herself or discusses them with the group.

Carpenter emphasizes that in both examples the teacher did not grade the activity. Rather, they provided low-risk practice opportunities to help students learn and recognize mistakes as an important part of the process. This benefits students beyond the classroom.

“Learning how to learn will help you learn something and know how to be successful wherever you go after your formal education,” she said.

Reference: “The Science of Effective Learning Through Interval and Search Practices,” Shanna K. Carpenter, Stephen C. Pang, Andrew C. Butler, 2 Aug. 2022, Available here. nature reviews psychology.
DOI: 10.1038/s44159-022-00089-1

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