Imagine starting a new job and having to learn the ins and outs of the office. Where do you go to get the mail? How do you work the copy machine? What operating system do the computers use, and how do you log in to your company’s e-mail?
All of this information is novel, and so you’re learning a lot in a short period of time. When your friends ask you how your new job is going, you respond, “Oh it’s a bit overwhelming. There’s a big learning curve.” What you mean isn’t that it’s difficult to learn all this new information, but that you’re learning a lot relative to the amount of time you’ve spent ingesting information.
People refer loosely to the “learning curve” as any situation where learning happens quickly in the beginning and then tapers off as time goes on. Educational research shows that the learning curve is indeed a line graph that represents an individual’s rate of learning over time. At the beginning, the curve is steep, representing fast improvements in a short amount of time. Over the longer term, however, the rate of learning becomes more constant, and eventually plateaus.
Most people know about the learning curve, but few think about its evil twin, the “forgetting curve.” The forgetting curve was first studied by Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late nineteenth century. Similarly steep at the beginning, the forgetting curve demonstrates how quickly we forget information. Think back to how much information you’ve retained from any of your college courses, and you’ll likely realize just how exponentially decimating the forgetting curve can be.
If people spend years of their lives and thousands of dollars on education only to hemorrhage acquired knowledge and skills into the abyss, then we have a huge waste of valuable resources.
Studies show that rehearsal can help ingrain information into our memories. Memory improves as we practice, especially if we practice in different settings and with a variety of materials.
Disconnected information is difficult to retain. Connecting and applying knowledge helps strengthen the neural networks. For example, 800/25 may not be a pleasant math problem, but “How many quarters in $8.00?” seems a lot easier.
Every wonder how it is that most people remember the lyrics to “Ice Ice Baby?” Connecting information to sounds, smells, feelings, images, and even tastes can help remind us of what we need to know.