The Curve of Forgetting illustrates why cramming for any exam is not the smartest way to study.  When you walk into class on Day 1, you know 0%, but by the end of the lecture, you know 100% of what you know.

If you do nothing–don’t look at the notes again or think about, read or discuss the information with anyone else—you will forget 50% to 80% of what you learned by Day 2.  Why you ask? Because the brain constantly records information it receives—temporarily–everything from a conversation with your mother to the lyrics from the latest Glee episode you viewed. If the input is inconsequential or it never crosses your mind again, the brain will discard it as unimportant.  After all, the brain can’t store everything that bombards it, so the brain is constantly filtering what it sees, hears, tastes, touches, and smells, deciding what to keep and what to discard.

By Day 7 you remember very little of that lecture if you haven’t reviewed it.  By Day 30, “forget about it,” you may remember as little as 2% – 3% of that lecture.  No wonder when you start reviewing all the class notes from all the lectures that will be covered on the exam, it’s as if you’ve never seen or heard this stuff before.  I hope you gave yourself enough time to relearn all this information.

You can combat this doom and gloom scenario and turn the learning curve around.  By repeating and/or reviewing those lecture notes frequently, you can instruct your brain to file this information into your long-term memory rather than the garbage heap.  The more you review the information, the less time it will take your brain to recover the information when you need it—duh, on the test.

Change the Curve of Forgetting to the Curve of Remembering

Within 24 hours of the lecture, if you spend ten minutes reviewing–rewriting your notes, rereading the text for example—you can raise the curve to almost 100% again (the orange line in the above graph). On Day 7 it will take you only five minutes to recall the information, again raising the curve to almost 100%.  If you review every week, by Day 30 it will take your brain only two to four minutes to report back the information.

Obedience school dogs sit obediently while a cat runs in front of them

Do you have the discipline?

Think you don’t have time to review every day? I would tell you that you can’t afford not to review every day, for without reviewing frequently, you’ll need to spend 40 – 50 minutes re-learning each hour of lecture notes.  Do the math.  Do you have that much time to devote to cramming for the test? Rarely does cramming result in storing information to long-term memory.  You merely memorize information; you don’t learn it; you may not be able to apply it (And that’s what your professors want you to do on the test.). Why leave something so important to chance? 

A general  “rule of thumb” is to devote thirty minutes or more every weekday and one-and-a-half to two hours every weekend reviewing for each course.  Ask those students you consider “the brains” in the class what they do to get those A’s they seem to garner so easily.  I’ve asked them myself.  With very few exceptions, those students have study habits very similar to the one recommended. 

What can it hurt to try a new method?  I always tell students who are doing poorly in their classes, that if they continue with the same habits, they will have the same results.  Reviewing on a regular basis will definitely reap rewards: you will begin to understand the material and be able to retain it. If you realize you don’t understand the information, take action immediately to understand it.  Contact me about getting a tutor, meet with the professor and ask for help, ask someone in your class to explain it to you.  Learn it as you go is my motto.  The night before the exam is definitely not the time to be looking for help. 

In my last two posts, I’ve urged you to get organized and begin your review for final exams.  Did you create your study schedule and begin your serious quest to perform well on your final exams?  If you haven’t started preparing for finals yet, maybe these facts will resonate with you: finals are a mere two-and-one-half weeks away; the last day of class is April 29; the first day of finals is May 2. Today, April 13, was the last day to withdraw from class.  It’s time to get serious!