Talking About Forgetting with Students


I’ve been thinking a lot about forgetting; about how forgetting is portrayed in school and in the life of our students. I feel confident in saying that the word/idea/concept generally has a negative connotation in our society. And I get it. When I forget my coffee at home or can’t remember where I placed my phone, I’m certainly not jumping for joy at the forgetting. And don’t get me started on forgetting passwords to different sites/apps that all have different requirements for those passwords. You literally have to admit to your forgetting by clicking a ‘Forgot Password‘ link. Forgetting can certainly be a disruption and negatively impact our mood and ability to complete tasks.

But, within the confines of memory and learning, I don’t believe that negative undertone is warranted. Forgetting is the norm in our life. For many different reasons, we forget. Our brains, as amazing as they are, are fallible. And it doesn’t really matter how much we try to focus and selectively attend to information, some of it will be forgotten. The research on forgetting is pretty straightforward: The course of forgetting is initially rapid, then levels off with time.*** Forgetting isn’t the exception to the rule…it is the rule.

But is that how forgetting is framed in education, though; as something that is a part of life? From my perspective and experience, I don’t think so. Forgetting is bad. Forgetting could possibly lead to a reduction in grade or could indicate ‘you didn’t try hard enough’ in class. This can lead to feelings of frustration and judgement. And, for the most part, because it is seen as bad we don’t really talk about it other than to say, “study more” with no further guidance. I know, in the past, I have been guilty of all of this.

But, recently, I’ve been working to change that narrative with the students in my class.

Most days in my class begin with a short review of material from the previous lesson(s). Over the course of 24 hours, students are going to forget a lot of what we cover in class. So, when they show up to class and I provide a review, I shouldn’t expect them to necessarily do too well. The students’ mindset should not be ‘I should be getting all of this correct’, but ‘let me see what I remember and what I don’t so I better know what to review later’. But that’s not the mentality we approach most assessment opportunities with…they’re seen more as a ‘gotcha’ for students or, at least, students believe they’re supposed to remember all of this because it’s on the review.

We need to work to change this mindset. Let the students in on the ‘secret’ of memory and forgetting. Tell them forgetting is normal and expected. And the reason we’re doing these formative assessments is to simply indicate what you do remember and what you’ve forgotten so future studying can be more efficient and effective. And please mention this often: “Remember, I don’t expect you to know everything and you shouldn’t either. You should have forgotten some of this. We just want to highlight what you know and what you don’t know so you and I can better tailor class instruction and studying.” Remember, this is probably a paradigm shift for students. Don’t just tell them once; mention it often. When students don’t see formative assessment as a threat, they are more likely to participate and provide an honest attempt.

Now, I would like to clarify something: I’m not saying we simply accept this and don’t work to curtail the forgetting of material. Again, we know it’s going to happen, but what can be done to minimize its effects and reintroduce the forgotten information? Below are two of the most widely researched strategies that are quite easily adapted to many differing grade level, ability levels, and subjects.

  1. Retrieval Practice

Simply providing multiple opportunities for students to retrieve the information from their brain is one of the best practices to fight forgetting. Recognizing and/or recalling information strengthens the memories of that information. I know that sounds simple…and it is. Sometimes I think we make learning much more difficult than it has to be and when I believe I’m overthinking it all I try and remember: Information in and information out. Classroom instruction gets the information in the brain and retrieval practice (formative assessment) attempts to get the information out. One widely applicable strategy I use to maximize these opportunities is brain – book – buddy.

2. Spaced Practice

Spaced practice involves considering when to provide retrieval opportunities for students. By allowing time for forgetting and then practicing retrieval (spacing out the practice), the memories of that information is again strengthened. I know I mentioned above how I usually review the previous lesson the next day, but also include questions that may retrieve material from previous units, if they apply. Here’s a more specific strategy I use in class to space practice: Color Coding Recall Attempts.

These strategies provide an efficient and effective manner for fighting forgetting; with the understanding that we’re fighting a never-ending battle in the classroom…and that’s okay. It’s what we do as teachers and learners. What we can’t forget to do is let our students know that it is normal to forget and should be expected. Allowing them in on this little nugget of information can completely change the mindset of the learner (and teacher); providing a more intellectually safe environment for students to assess their learning and more effectively shape their studies.

How might you frame this conversation for your students? Please leave a comment below.


***For more on this, do a quick search for the Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve.

Photo by Jesse Martini on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “Talking About Forgetting with Students

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: