Combating the Curve

Person with many thought bubbles trying to retain information

Lecturing is one of the most traditional methods of teaching in higher education.  On any given day, there are hundreds of lectures being delivered in classrooms across college campuses.  Lecture, as a method to impart knowledge, is commonly accepted in most institutions and is regarded as an effective instructional method in a wide array of disciplines.  Despite this commonly used instructional method, the curve of forgetting suggests that lecturing in isolation is one of the most ineffective instructional methods when it comes to retention of information and long-term student academic success. 

The forgetting curve is a formula created by mathematician Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885, which depicts the rate at which information is forgotten over time if there is no attempt to retain it.  Based on the curve of forgetting, students lose 50 – 80% of information presented during a lecture if nothing is done within one day to reinforce their learning of the material (review, re-read notes, etc.).  To add to that, by day seven, students remember even less and by day 30, only 2% – 3% of information from the original lecture is retained (Averell & Heathcote, 2011).  The curve of forgetting is alarming as it impacts the overall academic success of students.  This doesn’t suggest that instructors should completely abort lecturing practices in their day to day instruction, however it does bring attention to the need to augment or enhance instructional practices to combat the curve of forgetting.  While it is evident that every student must take personal responsibility for their academic success, this article provides instructional strategies for instructors to consider that will significantly reduce the propensity for a loss of retention during and after lectures.

Interactive Notetaking Guides

An interactive notetaking guide is any sort of handout that prompts students to interactively take notes during a lecture. Whether the guide is prepared beforehand by the instructor or not, it is imperative that it provides opportunities for learners to interact with the content being delivered during a lecture.  Examples of interactive notetaking guides include, but are not limited to:

  • Filling in the blanks of notes prepared by the instructor  
  • Graphic organizers to complete during a lecture
  • Student drawn graphics or visuals to illustrate key concepts during a lecture
  • Partially pre-drawn diagrams or equations that must be completed during a lecture

While some instructors may prefer the use of technology for notetaking, research shows that handwritten notetaking promotes synthesis and retention and students who take notes by hand learn more than those who take notes on a device (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2014; Carter, Greenberg, & Walker, 2017). This is especially imperative when considering the multiple intelligences for learning. The act of writing down information alerts our brains to process in a more active manner and often prompts us to synthesize in a manner that helps make meaning for the new knowledge being introduced, which is then firmly stored into our long-term memory.

Stand and Deliver

Stand and deliver is a strategy used to reinforce content introduced within a lecture as well as break up the monotony of passively receiving information.  According to brain-based learning research conducted by Geoffrey Caine and Renate Nummela Caine (1989), the brain is social and does better when in concert with other brains.  The stand and deliver strategy does just that by promoting social interactions during lectures by prompting students to briefly discuss key questions with discussion partners intermittently throughout the lecture. Furthermore, stand and deliver also includes having one member from each discussion group stand and share key points of their discussion aloud to the class at large (movement is another brain-based learning strategy). Student learning is not only reinforced by small group discussions, but students are also able to glean insights from other classmates.

Student Response Systems

Integrating interactive polls, also known as student response systems (SRS) during lectures is another proven instructional method to enhance teaching and deepen learning. Interaction is at the core of using SRS during lectures, if done correctly. Such response systems should be used at key points throughout instruction to check for understanding as well as reinforce critical information. There are tons of user-friendly student response systems on the market, of which some don’t require a cost.  The most common systems for classroom use are those that can be used in the palm of one’s hand using their smartphone.  The benefits of using student response systems in higher education are discussed deeply in a study conducted at Glasgow University (2004), which concluded that integrating a SRS helps check for understanding, identify problems in comprehension, and promote deeper thinking about the content. Furthermore, common student response systems that have proven successful are Poll Everywhere, Nearpod, and Kahoot.

Today I Learned

Today I learned is a reflection prompt that can be used as a “ticket out the door” or “exit ticket” to reinforce the key points of the lesson.  Because self-reflection positively impacts retention, this strategy can be used as a customary practice for ending class. Today I learned requires students to reflect on their learning by completing the prompt “Today I learned.” This can be done aloud as a verbal share out (which could result in only a few students sharing) or silently with each student jotting down their own personal thoughts about their learning for the day. The written option is more effective as it gives the instructor an opportunity to look for trends and patterns.  In addition to “Today I learned,” the following prompts can also be used to get a pulse of student learning: “I want to learn more about” and “I’m still unclear about.”

While we know it is the students’ responsibility to take ownership of their learning through efforts such as attentiveness in class and effective study routines, it is also vitally important that instructors consider ways in which their instruction can positively impact student learning and retention of information. Although the curve of forgetting emphasizes the importance of reinforcing learning by engaging with the content after the lesson, incorporating interactive approaches during lectures is also a powerful approach to deepening retention and overall student academic performance.  

Bio: Dr. Adrianne Wilson is an assistant professor and program director for the Master’s in Educational Leadership program at the University of Tampa.  Dr. Wilson has experience in secondary education, teacher mentoring and evaluation, and instructional leadership. Aside from her role at the university, Dr. Wilson is also a consultant where she specializes in diversity and inclusion training for K-12 schools.


Averell, L. & Heathcote, A. (February 2011). The form of the forgetting curve and the fate of memories. Journal of Mathematical Psychology. 55 (1): 25–35. doi:10.1016/

Caine.G, & Caine. R.N. (1989). Learning about accelerated learning. Training and Development Journal. 65-73. 

Carter, S. P., Greenberg, K., & Walker, M. S. (2017). The impact of computer usage on academic performance: Evidence from a randomized trial at the United States Military Academy. Economics of Education Review, 56, 118-132.

Mueller, P.A., & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168.