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  • Writer's pictureIan Gibbs

Key Learning Techniques #1: The Ebbinghaus Method

Updated: Mar 29, 2022

Until someone invents a way to download knowledge directly into our brains Matrix-style (I know Kung Fu) I’m relieved to say that the best techniques for being a good learner are still those developed before you were born.

In this set of blogs, I cover some of my favourites.

1: The Ebbinghaus Method (or Spaced Repetition)

Born in 1950, Hermann Ebbinghaus was the German psychologist who discovered the forgetting curve and consequently invented Spaced Repetition method for dealing with it.

Ebbinghaus proved that we learn better when study sessions are spaced out, separated by ever-increasing periods of time.

For example: Consider two groups of students that study new vocabulary, each for 5 hours. The first group studies for one hour on 5 consecutive days (days 1-5). The second group also studies the same material for one hour/day but on days 1, 3, 6, 10 and 15. A month later (day 45) the second group could remember much more than the first group, even though they had both studied for the same length of time.

Although he did the majority of his research before 1900, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Ebbinghaus’s findings were ‘rediscovered’ and more widely popularised as SRS (Spaced Repetition System)

Nevertheless, the scientific methods and successes of Spaced Repetition is still conveniently ‘forgotten’ when educators give people ‘intensive’ learning sessions that have no follow-up whatsoever.

Ebbinghaus proved that without follow-up, learners will have almost entirely forgotten everything after just a month.

His work underlines the importance of reviewing, repeating and recycling knowledge so it becomes permanently fixed into our long-term memories.

Frustratingly, even today, most learning programmes, courses, textbooks and trainings still fail to use this century-old tried and tested method.

If you want to apply it yourself, all you need is something you want to remember (a name, a factoid or a speech), a revision system such as flashcards or a revision app and a diary. Instead of trying to force it in, stagger your revision over a longer period of time (in a similar way to as described above). In the long-term, you’re guaranteed to remember better than if you tried to do it intensively.

Points in favour: It helps store knowledge into your long-term memory in a more efficient manner.

Points against: It’s a slower process not ideal for the impatient, it’s not intuitive and it requires planning and self discipline.

Learnability rating: 7/10

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