Remember to Forget What You Studied

Does cramming help you learn longterm? Forget it, says a UCLA study. That is -- forget it and learn it over again for best results.


By Alison Hewitt

Published Apr 30, 2008 11:07 AM

Cramming for a midterm often means students forget the information until studying again for the final, but the act of forgetting may actually make the details stick better when they're studied the second time around, according to a 2008 UCLA study.

Ironically, "forgetting can be a powerful tool for learning," said Benjamin Storm, a cognitive psychology grad student in the Department of Psychology.

Of course, it's not enough to just forget — what makes the intervening obliviousness useful is what happens during the relearning, said Storm, one of the researchers on the project.

"If you don't forget, you don't engage in the type of powerful learning mechanisms that you would if you learn something over again," Storm said. "It makes you engage in a deeper level of learning."

Take learning to play piano, for example. Managing to play a piece on the piano really well, and then practicing it 10 times the same day is more about rote memory than long-term memory, he said.

"If you learn to play it well, then teach yourself to play it well again a month later, and again a month later, you're engaging in powerful forms of learning that are important if you want to really remember it 10 or 20 years down the road," Storm said.

The study showed word pairs to students, like fruit:lemon, fruit:orange and profession:accountant. A review session focused just on pairs such as fruit:lemon, during which researchers theorized that the student made themselves forget about fruit:orange to avoid confusion. A test found they remembered fruit:lemon from studying, and even profession:accountant without studying, but fruit:orange seemed to have disappeared. The surprise was that a repeat introduction to all the word pairs strengthened the memory of fruit:orange so that it was more deeply learned than profession:accountant.

But while any student knows that studying all night before exams almost guarantees they'll forget the information days after the test, the value of forgetting is no excuse to cram, Storm said. The researcher wouldn't even confess to having been a crammer in his undergrad days — flashcards were his secret weapon.

"It's not that you need to make yourself forget, you just need to make yourself engage in a deeper level of processing," Storm said. "It could be as much as relearning in new ways. Take your notes and summarize them."

Sadly, there aren't any shortcuts.

"You don't need to forget," he said. "But you have to really process the information you're learning."



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