Hacking the forgetting curve

We’ve all heard the term “learning curve” used to describe the intake of information when learning a new subject or skill; for example, if we have to take in a lot of information in a short space of time, we might say we are on a steep learning curve. In psychology, the term “forgetting curve” is used to describe what happens to the knowledge and skills that we have attained over the period of time that follows. This idea was crystallised in the late 19th century by Hermann Ebbinghaus, the founder of experimental psychology of memory, who demonstrated through his experiments that the process of forgetting is exponential in nature.

What do I mean? The graph below will help you see what happens. When you have just learned something, you can describe your knowledge or degree of skill as being 100%. That’s not to say that it’s perfect, but it’s 100% of the learning you have achieved at that point. A single day later, and that knowledge may have dropped to around 40%. That’s 60% of your hard-earned learning that has just disappeared! If you do nothing, a week later your knowledge level might be at around 20%. At a month, maybe 10% or less. You’ve heard the phrase, “If you don’t use it, you lose it”? This is where it comes from. That’s a pretty scary thought when you’re trying to learn, and equally so for those of us doing the teaching!

So, what does all this have to do with your music lessons? A lot, is the answer!

Practice: the dreaded P word… Although, I hope, it needn’t be so dreadful! Practice is our tool for hacking the forgetting curve, and the good news is that it actually takes very little to have a big effect. If, within the first day after learning (i.e. after your lesson) you thoughtfully and carefully practice the specific thing you have learned, you can bump yourself back up to 100% in a matter of minutes. Each subsequent day, the amount of practice needed to get the same effect is reduced. Reprocessing the same chunk of information sends a big signal to your brain to hold onto that data. When the same thing is repeated, your brain says, “Oh – there it is again, I should probably keep that.” When you are exposed to the same information repeatedly, it takes less and less time to activate the information in your long term memory and it becomes easier for you to retrieve the information when you need it.

A really good model for practice, then, is little and often. Think of it like brushing your teeth; a few minutes a couple of times a day is much more effective than one big effort just before you visit the dentist. The same is true for your music practice; if you save it all up for the night before your weekly lesson, you’ve lost almost 80% of what you’ve learned, and regaining that would take a lot of work. But if you can fit in a couple of short bursts in the first 24 hours after your lesson, then keep that up, it will get quicker and easier with each day that follows.

When practice follows this pattern, lessons become more productive and more fun. Far less time is spent going over the same old things that previously needed to be covered week-in-week-out, leaving space for something new!

Another very important factor of our success in learning is lesson frequency. I often hear students, particularly adults, say that a fortnightly or even monthly lesson would suit them better, because they simply don’t have time to practice in between lessons every week. Whilst I entirely sympathise with the pressures of modern life on our limited free time, I would suggest that if the little and often approach to practice is truly not something you can fit into your daily routine, then a regular lesson becomes even more vital to maintain any kind of progress. We’ve seen the difference a week makes to our knowledge and skill – as much as 80% lost if there’s no time spent reviewing the information. If you can feel your knowledge, skill, and motivation slipping away, the second best thing you can do (after practicing!) is to attend lessons as often as you possibly can.

For my part, I hope I do my very best to accommodate and encourage both regular practice and frequent lessons for my pupils. In particular, I make an effort to be available as much as possible during school holidays so that students can either continue with their normal weekly lesson with minimal disruption, or even make the most of my more flexible schedule and attend even more frequently. With the long summer break almost upon us, I’m already taking bookings for extra lessons during July and August. If you would like to book, please click here and complete a booking form, or ask me at your next lesson.

If you would like to ask anything about practice or maintaining your newly-acquired knowledge between lessons, please do comment below or feel free to contact me!

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