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Consider the following fairly common experience: You take a course on a subject in university or on an educational website such as Coursera. Immediately before or after taking the final exam or capstone test on the subject, you feel that your memory of the course contents is the strongest it has ever been to date. Over the next few weeks or months, you feel your memory of the subject fading, until after a few years you can probably recall only the broad outline of the course, or only its highlights. This assumes that you have not revised or revisited the course (substantially) after the final exam, and that you have not encountered the course content elsewhere.

What research exists on

  • the parts of a subject that are most quickly forgotten? (E.g. the finest details of a topic; the most complex in some sense; the subtopic that forms an exception to a rule that characterizes the rest of the course; anything that taxes the memory.)
  • the order in which the contents of a learnt subject are forgotten? (E.g. the finest details first, the broad outlines later, and so on.)

While these might be trivial questions to answer from lay experience, I am looking for substantial answers from cognitive research if any exist. Also, while the pattern of forgetting likely varies between students, given the differences in their cognitive abilities and their approach to studying the subject, I would suppose most students tend to forget details in broadly the same way, and roughly in the same order.

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  • $\begingroup$ I would look into research between meaningful learning (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meaningful_learning) and rote learning (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rote_learning) "The concept or theory of meaningful learning is that learned information is completely understood and can now be used to make connections with other previously known knowledge, aiding in further understanding.[1] Since information is stored in a network of connections, it can be accessed from multiple starting points depending on the context of recall." I would thus argue that meaningful learning last longer... $\endgroup$
    – Rubus
    Dec 1, 2021 at 19:43

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