Family Works: Speaking on forgetting

Rob Coombs ID.Min. Ph.D.
Posted 5/31/18


There is a rather lengthy period of life that we seem to remember almost everything, particularly when it comes to words. Around age two and a half, children begin a two-year period when …

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Family Works: Speaking on forgetting

There is a rather lengthy period of life that we seem to remember almost everything, particularly when it comes to words. Around age two and a half, children begin a two-year period when they learn approximately a word per day. This means that in two brief years their vocabulary increases by more than 600 words. Even more interesting than the number of words learned is that most of the words learned during this phase of life are learned without rehearsal. The child hears the word and then can use the word in speech. Also interesting is that words learned during this phase of life tend to be the last words we lose should our brain fall victim to some sort of dementia in old age. We even remember these words more easily than the names of our own children. This phenomenon is referred to as “first mapping.” 

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could continue this ability; if we could learn without rehearsal? Unfortunately, we don’t remember most of what we learn. For example, within eight hours 80 percent of what is heard in a lecture is forgotten. Teachers and preachers who communicate primarily by lecturing might need to reexamine their mode of communication. Hands-on learning and interactive learning tend to reduce forgetfulness considerably. Most of us remember a skill if we are allowed a few trial runs at performing the skill.

If you are one who struggles to remember, try the following suggested tactics and you are likely to be pleased with the results.

1. Pay Close Attention. The number one reason people supposedly forget is due to “encoding failure.” In other words, we never really put the information into our memory. You can’t remember what hasn’t been stored.

2. Knowledge of Results. Ask yourself, do I really understand what I am learning. If not, seek to understand. Your brain is much more likely to remember information that makes sense to you. The hardest type of learning is fact learning. Trying to memorize facts to regurgitate on a test is useless for most of us. We may remember long enough to pass a test, but such memories are forgotten quickly. If the information makes sense, you may remember for a lifetime.

3. Recitation. One of the best way to make sure information is stored in your memory is to recite the information. Don’t worry if others observe you talking to yourself. Repeating information you want to store in your memory to yourself really enhances the chance you will remember that information later.

4. Selection. My grades in college improved dramatically when I finally understood what was important to remember. It’s sort of like fishing with a net; a net that catches the big fish, but allows the little ones to swim free. Concentrate on what is worth knowing and you are less likely to clutter your brain with stuff that isn’t worth knowing.

5. Over-learning. Study should continue beyond bare mastery. Over-learning is insurance that you won’t forget. I tease college students that they never miss the first fill-in-the-blank on a test. This is where they write their names. There is no test anxiety about remembering your name since that information has been mastered.

6. Spaced Practice. Although the information that can be stored in your brain is limitless, trying to master new information for hours on end is exhausting. What works best are short study sessions with brief rest periods. Try studying for 30 minutes and then taking a 10 minute break. Remember to time your break or that 10 minutes can easily become an hour or more.

There was one more strategy that I had in mind, but I can’t remember. Oh, well.

Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.


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