Educational Psychology: Why do students forget the content they learn?



3a i). Explain the various reasons why students forget the content they learn.


The classroom experiences show that learners forget the information they acquire or learn. The teacher is a witness that the majority of learners in most of the tests taken hardly ever get full marks. The explanation for this phenomenon is that between the time material is learned or even revised and the time the test is taken some information is lost through forgetting.

In this lesson I have discussed why forgetting occurs as well as how memory can be improved. I have drawn heavily from the behaviorism and information processing theory

Why students forget the content they learn?

Educational experience show that some things are remembered very well, others are ‘there’ but sometimes difficult to find. While still others things are completely forgotten. A good teacher should know why this happens so that he can try and create conditions that promote memory all the time. Different theories give different explanations as to what causes forgetting. I have discussed the behavioristic theory and the cognitive theory.

The Behavioristic theory

The behaviorists developed the following explanations: The disuse model and the interference model

The Disuse Theory

This theory submits that people forget the S-R connections or associations made previously because they grow rusty or fade away through lack of use. This concept can be explained through the Pavlovian or Skinnerian experiments. In Pavlov’s classical conditioning it refers to the withdrawal of reinforcement. If the food, which served as the reinforcer to keep the association between the bell and the food alive, was removed, extinction occurred. If the dog was subjected to this state for long i.e. the bell ringing without the accompaniment of the food then the stimulus-response connections were lost. In Skinners operant conditioning if the rat continued to press the bar without the accompaniment of food as a reinforcer this bar pressing behavior disappeared because the connections or associations between it and food was lost. This information can be applied in the classroom situation for the purpose of helping the teacher to understand the dynamics involved in forgetting and remembering. Just like Pavlov’s dogs and Skinners rats would forget the S-R associations they had learned, pupils too forget what they learn under similar principles. To promote remembering the teacher needs to ensure that learned material is rehearsed under conditions of reinforcement.


Learners who do not rehearse content often lose the S-R connections they had learned. Rehearsing refers to the constant repetition and review of content. For rehearsal to benefit learners, the teacher should give them time and place to do their rehearsal (Study time).

The teacher should also ensure that the learners rehearse content, which is meaningful to them, because there is tendency to forget content if it is meaningless. There is the need to show learners how the content they are learning is related to what was learned earlier.

These activities help to stamp in the S-R connections already learned keeping them alive and hence minimizing forgetting.


Remembering is best promoted if learning is reinforced. Withdrawal of reinforcement causes extinction, which is the disappearance of the learned response. If a learner displays the desirable behavior without being reinforced, forgetting occurs. The teacher should never lose sight of the fact that reinforcement strengthens behavior and makes it more probable. Making it mare probable means that that behavior is given the chance to occur again.

Interference model

This is another behavioristic explanation of forgetting. According to this model learners forget content that they learn because other learning’s interfere. For example learners will forget old content because new content interfere with its memory. They will also forget new content because old content interferes with its memory. When old content interferes with the memory of new content, we call this proactive inhibition. If new content interferes with the memory of old content we refer to this as retroactive inhibition.

Proactive inhibition

Proactive inhibition is the forgetting that occurs when old information makes it difficult to remember new information. For example a teacher gives learners a list of words and asks them to study it. Call it list A. The teacher does not test for the memory of this list at this time. He gives the learners another list of words to study. Call it list B. Then tests the learners on the recall of the second list of words (List B) not the first (List A).

What normally happens is that as the learners try to recall words on the second list they experience some mix-up. They remember some words and they forget others. At the same time some of the words from ‘list A’ are recalled. The words from ‘list A’ are said to interfere with the recall of List B. This interfere is called proactive inhibition.

Retroactive inhibition

Retroactive inhibition occurs when new learning’s make it difficult to remember old learning’s. For example, this occurs if a teacher gives learners lists of words to learn. First list A and then List B and then tests them on the recall of List A. As the learners try to recall words on List A some of the words will be forgotten and some of the words from list B will be recalled because the memory of B interferes with the memory of A. This interference is retroactive because later memory acts backwards to interference with earlier memory.



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