Herman Ebbinghaus

Herman Ebbinghaus During the late 1800’s a new science was emerging in Europe. Psychology’s roots can be traced back to Germany and a man by the name of William Wunt. Following Wunt other psychologists began emerging in different fields. Of these pioneers Herman Ebbinghaus was one, and his field of study was memory.

He performed the first experiments in 1885 in Germany and the following is a background on the man and his field. Herman Ebbinghaus was born in 1850 in Germany and died there in 1909.He received his formal education at the Universities of Bonn, Halle, and Berlin (Gale, 1996). Ebbinghaus received degrees in philosophy and history from these universities (Gale, 1996). Ebbinghaus went on to teach at the Universities of Berlin, Poland, Breslaw and Halle (Gale, 1996). These experiences combined with later experiences with memory combine to give Ebbinghaus a curiosity about memory greater than most of his time.

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Memory can be defined as your amount of learning or your stored information.The process of storing and retreving information from the brain that is central to learning and thinking (Microsoft Encarta, [MSE], 1997). According to Myers (1998) memory is “any indication that learning has persisted over time”. There are also four types of memory classified: recollection, recall, recognition, and relearning.

Recollection is the reconstruction of facts based on clues that serve as reminders; recall is the active remembering of something from the past without help; recognition is the ability to identify previous stimuli as familiar; relearning is material that seems to be easier to remember than others as if it has been learned before (MSE, 1997). These four types of memory together help all people to remember anything from the states’ capitals to your best friends birthday party from second grade.Some researchers say that there are specific sites dedicated to memory while others say that all the brain works together (MSE, 1997).

There are tests to determine memory in individuals that Ebbinghaus Ebbinghaus 3 himself developed and will be discussed later. One test that does involve memory in a way would be the IQ test developed to test childrens level of intelligence which in turn depends on how much the child remembers. Ebbinghaus served in the Franco-Prussian War then seven years after that, decided to tutor in England, France and Berlin (Gale, 1996). It was during this time that Ebbinghaus became interested in memory and began to wonder how memory worked (Gale, 1996). In the journal of Physiological Psychology William Wunt said that a test on memory could not be performed (Gale, 1996).

After reading this Ebbinghaus decided that he would try and test memory himself. Armed with his curiosity and his knowledge of memory from tutoring Ebbinghaus began the tests. He used the same mathematical treatment that Gustav Fechner used in Elements of Psychophysics to try and test memory experimentally (Gale, 1996). Ebbinghaus decided to be the subject and the experimenter in this test so he made a list of nonsense syllables that he would memorize (Myers, 1998). He crated 2,300 one syllable consonant-vowel-consonant combinations to make his study easier (Gale, 1996).He made words such as taz, bok, lef so that he could test the memorization rather than his previous knowledge of the words.

He divided the material into lists that he memorized in different conditions (Gale, 1996). He measured them at night, in the day, when he was tired, just gotten up, etc. He recorded the average time it took him to memorize the lists perfectly then altared the test (Gale 1996). According to Gale (1996) he made observations about ther effects of such variables as speed, list length, and number of repetitions. Ebbinghaus also wanted to test long term and short term memory retention. He compared the time it took him to memorize any list once with the ammount of time it took him to memorize the same list again (Gale, 1996).He also measured immediate Ebbinghaus 4 memory showing that he remembered about six to eight items off his list after one look (Gale, 1996). Ebbinghaus in testing memory wanted to know how much he still knew from his lists later.

According to Myers (1998) he would test himself on the same material thirty minutes to thirty days after his initial test. Using the mathematical methods mentioned earlier he came up with a retention curve showing how much of the information he was able to retrieve the next day. This figure can be seen on the attatched sheet, Figure 9.

3. Ebbinghaus discovered that the longer he repeated the list on the first day the more he remembered on the second day when he was trying to recall the information (Myers, 1998). Here is where the principle “The amount remembered depends on the time spent learning” stems from (Myers 1998).Ebbinghaus didn’t always remember what he learned though. The amount he forgot can be seen his forgetting curve (see attached sheet) Figure 9.13. Ebbinghaus tested himself up to thirty days after the inital remembering and graphed what he remembered then (Myers, 1998).

The results show that as time increased percentage remembered decreases (Myers, 1998). Ebbinghaus did distinguish that nonsense information is more easily forgotten then everyday material.According to Gale (1996) Ebinghaus tested himself on 420 lists of 16 syllables 340 times each, making 14,280 trials. Ebbinghaus studied learning rates for meaningful and meaningless material concluding that meaningful items such as sentences and words could be learned much more efficiently than nonsense syllables (Gale, 1996). As a result of Ebbinghaus’ work more about memory is now known.

It is better to evenly space memorization rather than memorize it all at once (Gale, 1996). Despite Wunt’s disagreement many still use Ebbinghaus’ work on memory as a model for research on human memory (Gale, 1996). Ebbinghaus also developed a test for memory in 1894 while studying the mental capacities of children he developed a sentence completion test that is still used today to measure intelligence (Gale, 1996).This was the Ebbinghaus 5 first successful test of mental ability (Gale, 1996). Ebbinghaus was the cofounder of the first German psychology journal, the Journal of Psychology and Physiology of the Sense Organs in 1890 and wrote two text books: The Principles of Psychology(1902) and A Summary of Psychology (1908).

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“Educational Psychology”. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Microsoft Corperation. (1993-1998). “Memory and Mental Processes”. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia.

Myers, David. (1998). Psychology. New York.

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