Opinion

Boser & Frank — Forgetting Can Be an Important Part of Learning: How ‘Summer Slide,’ and the Process of Relearning, Can Actually Help Students Master a Subject

By Ulrich Boser and Chris Frank | August 26, 2018

As summer vacation winds down, parents’ fears of summer learning loss often increases — and with good reason. Studies suggest that students lose about one month’s worth of school learning during the summer.

But research also shows that forgetting can be an important part of learning. Why? Because the process of relearning actually helps students solidify information in their brains, as they work to remember what they once forgot. So if your child forgets her times tables, it doesn’t have to be a loss; counterintuitive as it may sound, science tells us that young learners may be well served by a thoughtful summer pause so that they can forget — and re-remember.

German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, known for his work defining the learning and forgetting curve, first discovered that relearning information helps people retain and recall knowledge over time. Human memory is not, as it turns out, designed for encyclopedic recall. Instead, our brains evolved to use the act of retrieval to make information either more or less accessible.

Think of memories like computer files: Details like the name of a family member are on the desktop, quickly and easily recalled. But where you celebrated your ninth birthday, for example, is stored in a much deeper vault. The path to it isn’t as short or well-worn, so recall is more difficult.

The brain’s propensity to forget little-used information can help us gain expertise and allows us to develop a richer form of understanding. The more you forget, the more you learn — because relearning makes the path to that specific memory file more robust.

That means parents should see forgetting as an opportunity. They can use the summer to create space between learning moments. They can encourage young learners to work on long-term assignments on multiple Saturdays, instead of two weeknights in a row. It’s an approach that’s hard to embrace during the school year when students — and their parents — have precious little control over when homework is assigned. And it makes the summer an especially good time for learning.

Parents can also use the summer months to reaffirm the lessons their children’s teachers have spent the previous year imparting. Experts recommend that parents know what students studied the previous school year and set aside the time to ask about the things they learned throughout their vacation.

Practice arithmetic skills during weekly trips to the supermarket; if your child learned about the Revolutionary War during the school year, ask her to tell you about George Washington once in June, once in July, and again in August. The goal is to make sure that learning sessions are spaced out, and rotate topics to cover a range of both recently learned subjects and older knowledge. Avoid packing too much learning into any one sitting.

Summer can also be a great time to emphasize types of learning that may receive less focus during the school year. Families can use the summer months to practice so-called noncognitive skills and habits like empathy and kindness — which are also important critical-thinking skills. Try to make these sessions short, and experiment with how often you visit and revisit different topics. Different intervals will help different children build their capacity and recall.

It can be easy to miss just how much students are forgetting during the long break. But summer doesn’t have to be a slide. Instead, the vacation can be an opportunity for revisiting material in ways that allow students to spot new connections or develop a deeper understanding of a topic. Remembering can build curiosity. When it comes to learning, it’s one of the most important skills a child can possess.

Ulrich Boser is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Chris Frank is a member of the research team at ClassDojo.

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