Student Learning and Course Content: How Fast Do They Forget?

Although faculty would like to think optimistically, most know that when it comes to student learning and how much content students take with them from a course, even one in their major, reality dashes optimism. This grim fact was confirmed in a study of students enrolled in a business consumer behavior course.

Using a sophisticated methodological analysis that involved repeated tests, researchers found that most of the knowledge that students gained in this course was lost within two years. Interestingly, even though “A students” had higher achievement in the beginning, they lost knowledge at a faster rate than “C students,” so that after two years the difference between what the two knew about consumer behavior was much smaller.

The faculty researchers also explored approaches that might lessen the amount of course knowledge lost. They first hypothesized that content learned at a deeper level would be retained better than surface knowledge. Deep knowledge corresponds with an elaborated understanding of something, whereas surface learning equates more closely with memorizing.

This deep learning hypothesis was confirmed, leading researchers to recommend that faculty “develop a pedagogy that requires deep learning early and often” even if this means a sacrifice of breadth for depth. “It is important to remember that although we hate to ‘give up’ some of our favorite topics, the topics that are only covered in passing are not meaningfully retained. Thus, we have already been giving them up; it just has not been obvious.” (p. 189)

Another way to promote deep learning and retention involves building links between what students are being asked to learn and the concepts and tools needed on first jobs. This link motivates students to learn the material. And even if they still forget, when they encounter on the job what they were taught in a class, they are likely to be able to relearn it quickly.

A second hypothesis was also confirmed: students retain course knowledge better when they are tested repeatedly. Researchers recommend the use of cumulative tests throughout a course. In fact, they go so far as to propose that in an “ideal program” cumulative testing would occur across courses in a major.

What most faculty suspect held true in this research: students quickly forgot what they learned, even though the course was in their major and therefore something of interest and relevance. The challenge for faculty is to carefully consider any and all teaching strategies to stem this loss of knowledge.

Reference: Bacon, D. R. and Stewart, K. A. (2006). How fast do students forget what they learn in consumer behavior? A longitudinal study. Journal of Marketing Education, 28 (3), 181-192.

Excerpted from The Teaching Professor, August-September, 2007