Flatten the Forgetting Curve

In case you haven’t read it yet, you might want to check out the 2014 book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III and Mark A. McDaniel. It’s as good of a thesis on how to improve long-term learning as I have encountered, and every teacher would benefit from reading it. We’ve based the design of our case studies and our recommended pedagogy for using them on the science that underpins the thesis in this book.

Traditionally, we taught one learning objective at a time, moving on to the next objective without expending a significant amount of effort to make connections between the learning objectives. We certainly didn’t foreshadow or revisit them months apart. In the figure below, the red line represents the retention of information learned in one class period over time without revisiting it. The green line to the right represents the retention of information learned in class over time with one retrieval event the following day. A look at the green line on the far right reveals that three retrieval events over three days essentially flattens the curve.

Figure 1. The Forgetting Curve with Spaced Repetition

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Our case studies are designed to typically take 2 - 3 days of class time, and they are intended to be “effortful”. Effortful learning results in deeper and more durable learning. In the same way that lifting heavier weights requires more effort and builds more muscle, investing more academic effort as you grapple with new information leads to greater long-lasting gains of skills and knowledge.

There are 3 main learning strategies we have infused into our case studies:

  • Active Retrieval

  • Spaced Repetition

  • Interweaving

Active retrieval of recently learned information and authentic application of that information into a new scenario is the first strategy. Our questions go far beyond simply repeating the information and are sequenced to build upon pre-existing knowledge to ensure students think about what they learned in new ways and identify relationships with what they already understand about the world.

We incorporate spaced repetition with repeated, low-stakes practice of what students have learned so that students develop mastery. Using multiple case studies that include the same knowledge and skills in new scenarios ensures that the neural connections students create endure.

Finally, we interweave topics in our case studies by identifying the relationships between cases and topics that are typically isolated within the curriculum and by using several types of problems within each case study.

Together, these strategies keep student learning varied and interesting, increase knowledge and skill acquisition, and ensure that they endure.

Image Credit (cover photo):

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