An Individual's Rate of Forgetting is Stable Over Time but Differs Across Materials

Top Cogn Sci. 2016 Jan;8(1):305-21. doi: 10.1111/tops.12183. Epub 2016 Jan 8.


One of the goals of computerized tutoring systems is to optimize the learning of facts. Over a hundred years of declarative memory research have identified two robust effects that can improve such systems: the spacing and the testing effect. By making optimal use of both and adjusting the system to the individual learner using cognitive models based on declarative memory theories, such systems consistently outperform traditional methods (Van Rijn, Van Maanen, & Van Woudenberg, 2009). This adjustment process is driven by a continuously updated estimate of the rate of forgetting for each item and learner on the basis of the learner's accuracy and response time. In this study, we investigated to what extent these estimates of individual rates of forgetting are stable over time and across different materials. We demonstrate that they are stable over time but not across materials. Even though most theories of human declarative memory assume a single underlying rate of forgetting, we show that, in practice, it makes sense to assume different materials are forgotten at different rates. If a computerized, adaptive fact-learning system allowed different rates of forgetting for different materials, it could adapt to individual learners more readily.

Keywords: Learning; Parameter stability; Spacing; Testing; Tutoring.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Education / methods
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Male
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Reaction Time
  • Time Factors*
  • Vocabulary
  • Young Adult