Teaching to remember

What is understood well is retained well. This article looks at 'retention and forgetting' and ways to enable students to retain the material taught.

Retention and forgetting are two sides of the same coin. The former refers to what is preserved, while the latter to what goes into oblivion, causing frustration to the teacher and the taught alike. Both are selective, and not all we learn is liable to be remembered or forgotten. Forgetting, to an extent, is a blessing in disguise, for the brain has a limited capacity, and cannot be overloaded at will. It is not possible to remember all the facts and figures we come across. So principles, generalizations, etc., derived from these linger in our memory after we have grasped the significance of the facts. Having a limited place in our education, these facts and figures act as stepping stones to understand a trend, or to abstract a principle. Fortunately, these principles are easily retained in our memory.

The age-old question is, “Why do we forget?” or rather “Why is it that when the same instruction is given to a group of students in the same class, some remember certain points, others something else, a few remember everything, some get confused, while still others forget the whole thing like an erased slate?” Ebbinghaus was the first to plot retention as a function of time, using non-sense syllables in his experiment. The steepness of decline and the final level of retention depend on factors such as the meaningfulness of the material, the nature of the material and how the parts are inter-related, as well as the intelligence, experience, and motivation of the learner and the amount of review – not excluding the overall impact of the teacher.

Forgetting among children can be enhanced due to faulty teaching techniques.  It follows, therefore, that forgetting can also be rectified by using carefully planned teaching techniques. Forgetting can be caused by ‘disuse’ or ‘decay’ with the passage of time, especially with misunderstood or poorly understood material. It can also take place because of an active process called ‘interference’. Interference would be greatest when the same or similar stimuli call for different responses. If, for instance, two different lists of response words to the same list of stimulus words are studied, the second list will cause maximum interference to the first.

The more the learner associates the learning material with other experiences, the more he is likely to retain his learning. The more organized, compact and structured a given learning is, the less it will be interfered with by subsequent learning. What is understood well is retained well.

The rate and the amount of forgetting over a period of time are related, both to over-learning and to the number of reviews subsequent to learning. If the material is learnt only to the point of reproducing it correctly, and is not reviewed, retention drops sharply. Review is the best method of retention immediately after the original learning. Unless in the form of recitation, review should not be mere re-reading; rather, it must encourage the learning of related sources, looking for new ideas, etc.

In conclusion, to enable students to retain the material taught:

1.       Be sure that the motivation is adequate.

2.       Cater to the needs of all the students.

3.       See that they understand what is taught in the right sense.

4.       Conduct immediate and periodic reviews.

5.       Associate the learning material with other similar experiences.

6.       Make the learning material organized, compact and structured.

7.       Encourage the intent to remember.

8.       Avoid teaching, in quick succession, topics that tend to interfere.

9.       Avoid introducing new material in a hurry, for this merely means instilling incoherent ideas.

10.   Promote effective and interesting learning as a means of promoting greater retention.

11.   Continuously relate your teaching to concrete examples and everyday situations. 


This article, by Mary Dorothy Fernandez, first appeared in Teacher Plus, Issue No. 19, July-August 1992 and has been adapted here with changes.



sairam's picture

Please noted 11 points as dedicated teachers.

sujathar's picture

I fully agree that planned teaching techniques definitely help learners understand what is taught and thus it helps them remember what they learn.. hands on experience , relating learning to day to day experiences ,promoting independent thinking also help learners remember what they learn.

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