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Herman Ebbinghaus

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Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who is best known for his experimental study of memory. Hermann Ebbinghaus is credited for the forgetting curve, the spacing effect and was the first to describe what a learning curve was. Ebbinghaus began his studies in 1879 in a testing lab in Germany; Wilhelm Wundt was also conducting psychology experiments at the same lab. One thing to keep in mind is that Ebbinghaus had no university backing him and his research, he had no professor to ask questions about his research and he had no lab to work out of. (Schultz & Schultz, 2011) Hermann Ebbinghaus contributed to modern psychology because of his publication “Memory: A contribution to Experimental Psychology, the forgetting curve and the spacing effect.

In 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus published one of his best known works called “Memory: A contribution to Experimental Psychology. Ebbinghaus’s paper was on serial learning. Serial learning is where the learner is exposed to stimuli to be remembered and later recalls those stimuli in the same order in which they were given to the learner. A good example of serial learning would be a child who is just learning the alphabet. The same stimuli are given, the letter A and that sets off the rest of the alphabet. In this publication Ebbinghaus used nonsense syllables; usually three syllables a consonant, a verb, and a consonant. Although, Ebbinghaus did not always use just three syllables he sometimes used up to six syllables. Ebbinghaus used himself in this study which took up five years to complete. (Schultz & Schultz, 2011) Ebbinghaus’s goal during this experiment was after the first syllable in the list was given the remainder of the list was to be repeated on the very first try. Ebbinghaus measured his data by his speed, the number of times before the list was retained, and the speed at how fast the list would be forgotten. Ebbinghaus also made note of repeated learning on the retention of the information. (“The life and,”) Learning your home phone number as a child and still being able to recall that number as an adult would be a good example of this.

Ebbinghaus also contributed to psychology by the curve of forgetting. The curve of forgetting can be defined as the more time that passes after learning something, the more information that is forgotten. Most students have experienced this. Students experience this curve and that is why they will “cram” for a test or a quiz. The research shows that the best possible recall will happen shortly after you have learned new material. If a student reads that Roy Williams is the head coach of the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team right before a test on UNC the student will be able to recall that information first.

The third thing that Ebbinghaus contributed to psychology is the spacing effect. The spacing effect is the opposite of having to cram for a test. What the spacing effect states is that information that is learned over time will have a better chance of being retained for longer periods of time. This is better than cramming for a test. When a student crams for a test they do not recall the information for the final at the end of the semester. If a student skims all of the previous chapters of the text and re reads notes then when the final exam comes they will be more likely be more prepared than those who have had to cram right before class.

There are several strengths to Ebbinghaus’s contributions to psychology. I think the biggest strength is that Ebbinghaus was able to teach students, professors, and well anyone who will ever learn that there is a better way to learn large amounts of information. By discovering the spacing effect he has affected the way we learn and retain information. Titchner said it better than I could when he said “first significant advance in the field since the time of Aristotle.” (Schultz & Schultz, 2011,p79) Before Ebbinghaus no one else had ventured into the realm of memory and how we learn.

The one weakness that I see would be that he wrote “Memory: A contribution to Experimental Psychology” he only used himself as the test subject. I know that he did not have access to the resources that others of his time did but I am surprised that he could not find anyone else to participate in the study of serial learning. I have no doubts that his findings were true and accurate but if there was going to be anything that might have been skewed it could have been the fact that he may not have wanted to report how often he failed at being able to recall the list the first time. I do not think that this would be ethical today.

Hermann Ebbinghaus was a man ahead of his times when it came to psychological experiments. Ebbinghaus wrote several papers including in 1902 Fundamentals of psychology, and The Outline of Psychology. Ebbinghaus’s findings on the forgetting curve and the spacing effect are still in use today.


Schultz, D. P. & Schultz, S. E. (2011). A history of modern psychology (10th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Cengage Learning. The life and contributions of hermann ebbinghaus. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.psychology.sbc.edu/Ebbinghaus.htm

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