How to Improve Your Long-Term Memory: The Importance of Timing and Frequency

by Kevin Wong

Technique Trumps Innate Ability

For those of you who may think, “Oh, I have a terrible memory.  I could never retain all the stuff I need to remember for school”, think again.  Memory is far more dependent on technique and habit than innate ability.

In 2003, Nature analyzed the cognitive abilities of eight people who finished near the top of the World Memory Championships and found that their natural memory abilities and brain anatomies were NO DIFFERENT from those of the common person.

A typical World Memory Championship competitor can easily memorize and recite, in order, an entire deck of playing cards in less than 2 minutes, and an ordered list of over 1000 random numbers in an hour. These memory athletes, using their very average memories, simply trained themselves to use powerful techniques that take advantage of the way the human brain encodes and stores information to accomplish impressive feats of memory.

Believe it or not, if you had the discipline to train your mind to commit information to memory in a new way, you too could accomplish extraordinary feats of memory as well.

[Continue reading to learn techniques you can use to improve retention]

Still skeptical? Just ask Joshua Foer, a regular guy who took the challenge to become a memory champion and won the US Memory Championships after one year of training.

So What?

While we won’t discuss techniques for memorizing decks of cards or long lists of random numbers here, we will discuss specific techniques and habits that apply our understanding of how our brain remembers (and forgets) information to support improved retention of newly learned material. We can use these techniques to remember anything we learn in school more effectively, whether it be the steps of the Krebs Cycle in Biology class, the causes of the Great Depression in History class, or new vocabulary words for the SAT.

Some History

In the 1880s, the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus studied the nature of human memory by performing controlled experiments on himself. Ebbinghaus attempted to commit to memory a series of nonsense syllables (such as CAJ, XOP, PYN) and tested his recall of these syllables over varying periods of time. He concluded that memory retention followed a “forgetting curve” and also exhibited a “spacing effect.”

The Forgetting Curve

We forget exponentially. Ebbinghaus found the rate of forgetting occurs most rapidly immediately after the learning period ends, and then the rate of forgetting slows as time goes on.

The Spacing Effect

Ebbinghaus found that he could dramatically improve memory retention by correctly spacing review sessions of the material.  After each additional review session, the new rate of forgetting slows significantly.  To improve retention, the new material should be reviewed at a very high frequency at first, and then at lower frequencies spaced out over time.

Real-life Application to Students

So how is this psychological research going to help me get better grades? We can use Ebbinghaus’ insights about retention and forgetting to devise study plans that maximize retention of newly learned information.

Typical Study Schedule.  Does this look familiar?

  1. Learn new material in class. Take notes (hopefully).
  2. Complete homework assignments as they come along
  3. Set aside large blocks of time to review notes and homework a couple of days before a big test

Unfortunately, using this strategy is a terribly INEFFICIENT way to commit information to memory!

Since we forget information at an exponential rate, this means that we forget the most information right after we learn it. The longer we wait before we review/refresh the material, the more we forget, and the longer it takes to relearn the material. On the other hand, if we quickly review the material immediately after we learn it, when the information is still somewhat fresh in our minds, the review session is very quick, our retention spikes back up to 100%, and the new forgetting curve exhibits a slower rate of decay.

Timing and frequency of review/study is more important than total time studied.

After enough repetitions, the forgetting curve becomes almost flat, and the new information starts shifting into long term memory. Conversely, if you haven’t done any previous review and spend long hours “cramming” right before a test, the study session is long and painful (you’ve forgotten almost everything by now and you’re re-learning the majority of the information instead of simply reviewing it). The recently crammed information will soon be forgotten once again.

New, Improved Study Schedule

  1. Review newly learned information as soon as possible after class!
  2. Set frequent, short, review sessions (10-15 minutes) of your notes and readings early on. Space additional review sessions over time at a lower frequency. Remember, frequency of study and effective spacing of study sessions is more important than length of time spent studying in individual sessions.
  3. Incorporate Active Learning techniques into the note-taking and review sessions. The successful Cornell Note-taking System explicitly forces students to review new information immediately after class and also suggests short weekly review of all notes.

Try it out!

Try incorporating the “New, Improved Study Schedule” mentioned above in one of your classes. Try to break the habit of procrastinating and instead adopt these new study habits – the results will speak for themselves!

Additional Reading: Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn?…

5 thoughts on “How to Improve Your Long-Term Memory: The Importance of Timing and Frequency

  1. Katheleen Weissman

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  2. Michelle

    So interesting! Our brains need to stay sharp as we get older – I’m only in my 20’s and I sometimes feel like I’m starting to forget things!


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