Forgetting to Learn

The more I learn about learning, the more interesting…and confusing…it becomes. There are many aspects of memory and cognition that are quite counterintuitive. Unfortunately, these incorrect beliefs negatively impact learning in the classroom. For instance, many students prefer to study via rereading and highlighting their notes. They falsely believe this method best accentuates their ability to learn. There is a plethora of research indicating this is probably not true (1). 

Another less intuitive, yet infamously incorrect, presumption about learning that many students (and teachers) believe to be true is we learn best when encountering material in our preferred learning style. Those who erroneously believe they have a style of learning often assume they need to experience subject matter in their style or their ability to learn suffers. Someone believing they are an auditory learner may exhibit a negative attitude when information is presented visually, causing them to put forth less effort and learn less. Are they going to learn less? Yes…but…it probably wasn’t the medium of presentation that caused them to learn less. More than likely, decreased efforts because of false beliefs resulted in their loss of learning. 

Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of learning that flies in the face of intuition is forgetting. Within the confines of school and learning, forgetting is the enemy.. And, yeah, there comes a point when forgetting is bad, but there are certainly some benefits to forgetting. I know that may sound a bit strange, but just hear me out…or, rather, hear the research out.

“One of the ‘important peculiarities’ (2) of human learning is that certain conditions that produce forgetting — that is, decrease our ability to access what we have stored in our memories — actually create opportunities to enhance our level of learning.” (3)

Dr. Elizabeth Bjork and Dr. Robert Bjork provide three conditions of learning that induce forgetting, but create opportunities to enhance learning when the material is restudied. (3)

  1. Varying environmental contexts. There is evidence that changing the surroundings from where material is first studied to where it is restudied or assessed may induce forgetting but enhance learning. Restudying the material in a different location, where more of the subject matter will have been forgotten, actually enhances recall of that material. This is certainly counterintuitive to what I was always told as a learner…namely that you should find one place where you do all of your studying. I believe varying the context of studying is supported by the Episodic Context Account. (4) This account states that, studying via retrieval practice involves the reinstatement of the context in which the information was first experienced. Then, if retrieved successfully, the context of the to-be-recalled information is updated to contain features of both contexts. Finally, when the material is retrieved again during restudy or on an assessment, the updated context allows for the restriction of their search set and provides more possible cues for retrieval. Retrieval may decontextualize the information, making it more retrievable but no longer linked with a particular context.
  1. Increasing the interval between study opportunities. The longer a learner waits to restudy material, the more they will forget and the less they will be able to recall. While this seems counterintuitive to the goals of learning, evidence supporting the  spacing effect is quite robust. (5)(6) Learners often believe they should restudy as soon as possible after initial encounters with material, but this doesn’t support long-term retention of material. Also, the effects of spacing study are often hidden to students because the benefits are only apparent after a delay. Cramming for an assessment may suffice for an immediate assessment, but long-term the benefits of cramming diminish rapidly. If the material to be learned needs to be remembered for additional summative assessments or is foundational knowledge to be built upon by later lessons, cramming will not suffice. 
  1. Interleaving study or practice of material. Interleaving, rather than blocking, the study or practice of concepts or individual components of material may induce forgetting of information initially, but enhance long-term retention. Blocking practice intuitively feels more productive. It is a common occurrence in math classes for students to practice 4-5 problems that demonstrate a particular concept before moving on to another set of questions that practice another concept. It feels right. It feels better because we seem to get more questions correct. But, there is evidence that this blocked practice does not lead to better recall or transfer after a delay. (7) “Such blocking can create an unreliable sense of understanding or comprehension and disappointing performance on a later, possibly important, test in which problems of the same type will typically not be together or accompanied by a clue as to the procedure that should be used to solve a given problem.” (3) 

It seems a lot of our beliefs about studying and learning are contrary to these three conditions. Why do we avoid varying the context of studying, spacing out studying opportunities, and interleaving practice of material? 

  1. Many students (and teachers) are not familiar with the three methods of forgetting to learn. I know, for myself, until I did a bit of research into effective learning strategies (in my tenth year of teaching…yikes) I had no idea about spaced practice or interleaved practice. Obviously, there’s really no way we can expect students to use these more effective strategies if they are not familiar with them.
  2. Students may mistakenly associate the ease with which they reread their notes to indicate a firm understanding of material. After all, if they didn’t know the information, it would’ve been a lot harder.
  3. The three conditions are not desirable. It is more cumbersome to change contexts to study. It is more burdensome to plan ahead for spaced practice. It doesn’t feel good to initially get more questions wrong, as often happens when interleaving practice. But, students need to experience, appreciate, and apply what Bjork and Bjork call ‘desirable difficulties’ (8). They aren’t desirable because they are easy, they are desirable because they support learning and remembering. The trick for all learners is to get to a point where they are desiring difficulties.

As a teacher, I see it as part of my job to teach my students about these conditions that have shown evidence of producing more long-term retention of information. Oftentimes, our students believe the difference between themselves and other students academically is most greatly created by more or fewer IQ points, but that may not the case. I believe Bjork and Bjork said it best:

“In our view, there is a widespread underappreciation of the power we all have to learn. Aptitude is overappreciated, and the power of training, practice, and experience is underappreciated…Optimizing learning and teaching rests on our understanding of what we all share: an unintuitive functional architecture as learners and a remarkable capacity to learn.” (3)

Maybe it’s not necessarily our aptitude that makes us a better or worse learner…maybe part of it is our understanding of how we learn and the application of somewhat counterintuitive learning conditions or strategies. This is a powerful message for those learners who see themselves as ‘less than’ academically. Teachers need to instruct all students on these study strategies and hope students don’t forget them…that is, unless they are forgetting them to learn.

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

  1. Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on psychological science, 1(3), 181-210.
  2. Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1992). A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation. From learning processes to cognitive processes: Essays in honor of William K. Estes, 2, 35-67.
  3. Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (2019). Forgetting as the friend of learning: implications for teaching and self-regulated learning.
  4. Karpicke, J. D., Lehman, M., & Aue, W. R. (2014). Retrieval-based learning: An episodic context account. In Psychology of learning and motivation (Vol. 61, pp. 237-284). Academic Press.
  5. Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological bulletin, 132(3), 354.
  6. Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 176-199.
  7. Rohrer, D., Dedrick, R. F., & Burgess, K. (2014). The benefit of interleaved mathematics practice is not limited to superficially similar kinds of problems. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 21(5), 1323-1330.
  8. Bjork, E. L., & Bjork, R. A. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, 2(59-68).

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