In Defense of Forgetting

In our quest to teach and to learn who is the good guy? Remembering, of course. And who is the bad guy? Forgetting, of course. Well, not so fast. While you may not think so, forgetting is an important part of the learning process.

Forgetting benefits us in multiple ways:

  1. It frees our brains up to remember what is really important. Do you really need to remember what you ate for lunch three weeks ago Tuesday? Unless you got food poisoning, probably not. Similarly, in a course, not everything you learn is important to remember. Some information, if needed, can be looked up and some information is just not that important. Our brains are constantly bombarded by sights, sounds, smells. Imagine if you could remember everything? There have been a few documented cases of people with 100% recall of everything that has ever happened to them. It’s not a positive attribute; in fact it’s debilitating. It causes mental exhaustion. And the same is true in the learning process. You don’t need to remember everything.  Just what’s important.
  2. It helps us avoid a phenomenon called Proactive Interference. During proactive interference something you already know actually interferes with learning something new. For example, you are trying to remember your new office phone number but you keep remembering your old office number instead. Or, you already know some French and this knowledge interferes with your ability to learn Spanish.
  3. A little forgetting helps in remembering. Deep learning occurs when memories are stored in long term memory and stabilized. This is called consolidation. An effective method for consolidating a memory is to retrieve the memory from long-term memory, bring it into working memory and then re-store (re-encode) it in long-term memory. The well-known spacing effect (spacing learning over a period of time) uses this process. But one outstanding question about spaced learning is: What is the optimal spacing period? Many studies have shown that optimal retrieval and reconsolidation occurs when the learner is just at the point of forgetting. In 1989 Banaji and Crowder wrote: “As an empirical rule, the generalization seems to be that a repetition will help most if the material had been in storage long enough to be just on the verge of being forgotten.”

So, remember (pun intended) not all forgetting is bad for you or your learners.


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