Memory Boosters and Retention in Learning

Forgetting Curve and Active Recall (Flickr: bcjordan)

This post briefly looks at the concept of increasing retention of memorized material through the use of “boosters” to stimulate information recall.  CIT is  interested in collaborating with instructors to investigate tools to facilitate the practical application of this concept in Duke courses.  Please contact us for more information.

At the 2016 DevLearn Conference, Dr. Art Kohn (Portland State University) offered a session that focused on techniques that can be used to overcome Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, which shows how humans, without engaging in active and meaningful recall, lose information from memory as time passes. Dr. Kohn’s repeated argument was that, for the sake of information retention, what you do after learning material is more important than what you do while learning material.

Neuroscience disagrees with the notion that forgetting is a failure of memory.  Instead, the field recognizes that forgetting is an essential, adaptive process; we actively suppress information that we don’t use.  Kohn’s suggestion, therefore, is that using information is the most effective algorithm for remembering it.  He offered a simple example by asking if anyone in the room remembered their hotel room number from the last conference that they attended (not the current conference).  Of course, nobody did, because that information has not been actively recalled over time.

Dr. Kohn then went on to talk about the use of “boosters” to reset the forgetting curve.  Essentially, research that he and others have undertaken has shown that regularly stimulating the recall of information is useful for increasing the retention of learned information over time.  The way that Dr. Kohn advocates providing these boosts to learners is through a “2-2-2” method:  Ask students a meaningful question about the material that requires them to recall information after 2 days, 2 weeks, and 2 months.  Taken at face value, this seems relatively obvious, but Kohn offered interesting specifics about how these boosts work:

  • Recalling information for five seconds, thirty seconds, and five minutes all result in nearly the same amount of benefit in terms of longer term retention of material.
  • Boosting just three major subtopics from a one hour lecture increases retention of all the material from the lecture, not just those topics that were “boosted.”
  • The type of boost (multiple choice question, fill-in-the-blank question, application question) makes no difference, provided the boost inspires effortful information processing in order to respond.

Kohn also touched on a number of other topics related to the practical application of this concept, including suggestions for creation and delivery of booster questions, and potential benefits of incentivizing students to engage with boosters, either through a gamification process or inclusion the grading scheme.

CIT is interested in further investigation of the booster concept, including the possible development of tools for authoring and delivering booster questions to students in Duke courses.  Duke faculty who are interested in working with us should contact us for further information.

More Reading
Brain Science: Overcoming the Forgetting Curve (article by Dr. Art Kohn in Learning Solutions Magazine)

Author: Seth Anderson

Seth works with faculty in the Humanities in order to help them improve pedagogy and enhance meaningful student learning. His interests include active learning techniques, the educational use of mobile devices (phones, tablets, etc.), wearable technology, online course development and delivery, digital video and imagery, virtual and augmented reality, and Web-based educational tools.