Why you forget things and how to study accordingly

Our memories are an extraordinary thing – there are so many details that we squirrel away in our brains that we don’t even realize are there. We collect even the smallest details running back to our childhood. So why then, when you’re running out the door at the last minute, can we never find our cell phones? Or better yet: how when we’re about to go in to write an exam, do we manage to forget everything we’ve just crammed into our brains?

This is because there are several types of memories, and our brains process each of these in different ways. This means that why we forget things can be classified in different ways as well. But it’s totally normal to forget things, and even a vital aspect to a functioning brain. Why’s that? Read on below to learn about the four major reasons researchers have identified for why we forget information.


Some memories that we try to store may be pushed out by other, competing memories – this is called interference theory. This is the type of memory failure that happens when you’re trying to learn a new romantic language, for example, and knowledge of the other romantic language you speak may be getting pushed out. Or vice versa. This could work both ways. Let’s say you speak French already, and are studying Spanish. You could have proactive interference, meaning that your knowledge of French makes it harder for you to retain your new memories and knowledge of Spanish. Or, you could experience retroactive interferences, meaning that in learning Spanish, you begin to lose some of your French.

Retrieval failure

When you forget what a word means in a specific language, when you go to explain something to someone that you’ve learned a while back but can’t come up with the explanation, you’re experiencing retrieval failure – one of the most common reasons for forgetting things. This occurs when information isn’t retrieved and rehearsed often enough, and the memories of it begin to fade from our brains.

Failure to store memories

This one can’t actually be called ‘forgetting something’ because it implies that you never remembered it in the first place! Some things just don’t get stored in our long-term memories. For example, when studying, sometimes we ask ourselves the same multiple choice questions time after time. We learn to find the correct answer based on our knowledge of which answers are incorrect or its placement in the series of multiple choices. But if the question is reframed and given new possible choices, many people will struggle to answer correctly – this is because we only know the answer based on other information.

Active forgetting

In some cases, we actively seek to forget certain things. This could be in the case of tragic memories or traumatic experiences.

Some ways, like active forgetting, are harder to combat, but are more unlikely to affect your study habits. Some reasons for forgetting, including interference, retrieval failure, and storage failure can be worked on with a little dedication.

When dealing with interference, it’s important to activate the procedural part of the brain while learning so that all information can be retained. When working with a tutor online, make sure to conduct your tutoring sessions in the target language as much as possible, ask lots of questions of your tutor to ensure you’ve retained critical information, and follow up by listening to different oral materials (movies, podcasts, music) in your new target language. Also, don’t forget to practice your other foreign language to keep the information fresh!

Retrieval failure will also be suppressed by active study and frequent review – if you’re meeting with a tutor to study a language or a subject only twice a month online, you’re likely to forget the information that you’ve learned in between tutoring sessions. It’s best to give yourself a regular study schedule, and take time to yourself apart from your tutor to review concepts and discuss during your meeting with your tutor.

Failure to store memories or information can be managed relatively simply as well. When you’re studying information where you’ve relied heavily on declarative memory (memorization), it’s important to test yourself on the information by looking at it in several different formats. If you have an online chemistry tutor, don’t just study by answering multiple choice questions. Try to explain a concept as if you were teaching a 12-year-old the theory. Give long answers. Ask for different versions of the multiple choice questions. Look at fill-in-the-blanks. Remember: variety is the spice of life, and if you can apply this expression to the way that you study, you’ll see better results.

Happy studying!

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