Tools: Reasons for and Solutions to Forgetting

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Reasons for forgettingSolutions for forgetting

Reasons for forgetting


Negative self-concept

The people who are convinced that they cannot remember are most apt to forget. You must have confidence in your own abilities.


When material is not learned well enough, it will be easily forgotten. If something is to be retained, it must be correctly learned first.


Forgetting through disuse is both normal and unavoidable. Material is most rapidly lost upon initial learning. To retain material requires ongoing review and application.


New material tends to interfere with old materials. In other words, what you are currently learning may cause some forgetting of previously learned material. This is particularly true if the material is similar. The greater the similarity between present versus past learning, the greater chance there is for forgetting, confusion, and inaccurate learning. Mental overcrowding can prohibit learning. It is difficult to learn one subject if your mind is on a number of other things. For example, it would be difficult to learn your history chapter if you are watching TV, thinking about other course, or worrying about personal problems. Also, continuous study without a break (reading one book after another), may cause fatigue and boredom, thereby reducing the ability to concentrate.

Changed cues

You may have all of the information you need stored away in your mind but be unable to recall it if the right cue is missing. In other words, if you study the material one way and the test question is presented in another manner, you may be unable to remember. It is important that you put the material you are studying in your own words to make sure you understand it, thus improving your ability to recall the material.

Lack of attention and effort

The art of memory is the art of attention: attending to the material wholly. Moreover, there must be effort and intent to remember. The possibility of forgetting the material, because of any of the previously mentioned reasons, will be greatly reduced.

Source: Utah State University Academic Resource Centre

Solutions for Forgetting


BEFORE needing to accurately and quickly access your memory (e.g., test, presentation), make sure you won’t forget the material:

Construct connections between ideas: Don’t “pigeonhole” facts and details. Try to see the big picture. Take some concentrated time to think about the web of knowledge you are constructing. Why? It is easier to recall main ideas. If we have to make connections, we can recall main ideas and then recall or reconstruct details. We forget unconnected ideas quite easily.

Review regularly / Summarize: Reviewing daily is hard to fit in. But even a few minutes (5-15 min) spent summarizing (in your own words) what each class was about can be very beneficial. Those 4-5 sentences can quickly be re-read before the next class. Why? By summarizing and reviewing, you go through the process of activating and retrieving that idea. This strengthens the “pathway” to the ideas. Each time you retrieve the information, you reinforce the pathway. Review done close in time to the initial learning is more effective in maintaining a memory than review done weeks or months later.

Elaborate: Don’t review content just to read or listen to the material. Talk about the material. Bore your roommate or explain it to a study buddy. Or, make the information visual: make an outline, create an image or associate a technical word with its meaning. Why? A new and different memory of the material is constructed for each different method – seeing, hearing, saying, etc. The more memories, the better the chance of finding the information again in memory. When you translate ideas into diagrams, outlines, matrices, etc., you must make decisions about what information to select and how to represent it; you will more easily recall memories about decisions.

Make up practice questions for a test or prepare for a seminar’s Q&A: As you review your notes, write test questions down on 3×5 cards with answers on the back. Why? Same idea as with elaboration: you decide on the question, how to phrase the answer, what the answer was. Decisions and active engagement with information reinforce memory.

Flag cue words: Circle words in practice questions that cue the answer. Write synonyms for the circled words. Go backwards when you study – from answer (response) to a question (cue). Why? Test question are often worded differently than practice questions. With one cue, we have only one entrance to the memory. If we have practiced recalling using several cues, we increase our chances of answering.

Rehearse / Overlearn: Get to the point where you can say it “in your sleep.” Why? During an exam, anxiety increases. Anxiety can block the ability to recall what has been recently learned. Recalling what we have “overlearned” is a much easier task and may be accomplished even when anxious.

Source: Utah State University Academic Resource Centre.