Faculty Club / Course Design / 8 Ways to Help Freshmen Outsmart the “Forgetting Curve”

8 Ways to Help Freshmen Outsmart the “Forgetting Curve”

Holly Greiner-Hallman, MS, a special lecturer in biology, structures her courses to help freshmen retain as much classroom learning as possible.

Holly Greiner-Hallman, MS, a special lecturer in biology, structures her courses to help freshmen retain as much classroom learning as possible.

Holly Greiner-Hallman, MS


Special Lecturer and Advisor of Biology,
Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan

MS in Biology, BS in Biology and Spanish

One of the challenges freshmen students commonly face is something very few instructors might consider: the “forgetting curve,” the brain’s natural tendency to lose information over time.

“The numbers vary, but within a few days, you’ve probably forgotten over half of something that was covered in a course,” says Holly Greiner-Hallman, MS, a special lecturer in biology at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.

Why is this problematic for freshmen in particular? These students are new to the pace of college life: Big lecture classes and the rigors of college studies are both novel experiences. Many freshmen are also unfamiliar with the idea that they need to put in more work and dedication outside the classroom than they do in the lecture hall.

“Forgetting is part of how our brains work,” Greiner-Hallman notes. “I point out to my students that forgetting is normal, and it’s kind of what your brain is designed to do. It’s trying to be really efficient in determining, ‘What should I keep in here long term, and what do I need to discard?’”

Below, Greiner-Hallman shares strategies that she uses to help first-year biology students hold the forgetting curve at bay so that they can retain the vast amounts of information that bombards their brains.


“The more you put yourself in a test-like position, the better you’re able to deal with test anxiety. It increases your retention, it decreases your stress level, and you get better at retrieval of information.”
-Holly Greiner-Hallman, MS

Course: BIO 1200 Biology I

Course description: Introduction to cellular and molecular biology, enzymology, metabolism, genetics, cell division.

See materials

Greiner-Hallman’s 8 tips for creating a no-forgetting zone

At the outset of each semester, Greiner-Hallman tells her students that simply showing up in class, taking notes, and participating in classroom activities will not guarantee success on biology exams. For her, battling the forgetting curve means creating more opportunities to actively use the knowledge shared in class.

Here are Greiner-Hallman’s suggestions for keeping brains engaged:

1. Provide daily brain-ticklers to promote reading

Brief assignments, completed online, can reinforce the retention of complex information and processes in students’ minds, says Greiner-Hallman. This is why she sets up a brief drill of basic, low-level questions—vocabulary definitions, fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice—just about every day. Students receive credit for the assignment as long as they complete the exercises. “This is a way of forcing them to look at the material, whether they want to read their book or not,” says Greiner-Hallman. “Everybody knows they should read the chapter before class, but they’re often just not going to. Even if they’ve just heard these terms a handful of times before they come in, the lecture will be more meaningful to them.”

2. Pare down PowerPoint presentations to limit in-class distractions

Greiner-Hallman provides her slides and notes to students before class, so they can pay attention to her more during lectures, and she keeps them light on copy. “I use PowerPoint so that each slide is just a springboard for what we’re going to be doing,” she says. She also emphasizes biological illustrations over text so that students are not forced to split their attention between a professor and a projection. “If you have a big block of text on a slide, students have to decide, ‘Am I going to read that text, or am I going to listen to what she’s saying?’” she explains. “Sometimes the students say, ‘There aren’t enough notes on there!’ But then I say, ‘That’s where you come in!’”

3. Use lecture breaks to let information settle in

Especially in large lecture classes—traditional terrain for introductory biology—professors often speak uninterrupted for entire class periods. But Greiner-Hallman sees value in breaking up lectures every 15 or 20 minutes with activities or anecdotal discussion so that lecture information can settle in students’ brains. “We’ll do something in between, something very small, like a handout worksheet,” she says. Sometimes she interjects personal or humorous stories that relate to biology—such as tales of unusual allergies.

Making connections to everyday life also can help lecture material stick, she adds, because students have context for it. For example, students need to understand the role of a molecule called cAMP (cyclic adenosine monophosphate) to understand cell signaling pathways. “The process of cell signaling and second messengers like cAMP seem really abstract until you start talking about its relationship to another substance students are much more familiar with—caffeine,” says Greiner-Hallman.

“When you consume caffeine,” she explains to her students, “it inhibits the breakdown of cAMP, so the signaling pathway within the cell stays ‘on’ when it would otherwise be slowing or shutting down. The result: the ‘buzz’ of caffeine that amps up the body.”

Greiner-Hallman says this “interruption” to a lecture makes a great learning tool because students generally understand the purpose and effect of caffeine consumption, so the concept sticks with them. Even better, envisioning this situation means they are going beyond memorizing the function of cAMP to analyzing what the signaling pathway can look like under different conditions. “Both of these lead to deeper understanding of the material,” she says.

4. Use visual teaching tools to build mental imagery

Visuals can be a powerful way of locking in abstract concepts and processes, says Greiner-Hallman, so she uses models and animation to appeal to visual learners. “I want them to have a mental image they can pull up in the exam,” she says. “If they get a question about photosynthesis, they can pull up that process in their head, and it’s an image they can work with while they’re working through the question.”

Sometimes she brings in jars containing animal specimens for students to study and analyze—which is both visual and hands-on. “They’re all creepy-looking and weird,” she says. Each group gets a different specimen, and then they have to use visual cues to compare them to each other. “They discuss and negotiate, ‘What are the different features of these specimens?’ and ‘How do I know that what I have is different from what somebody else has?’”

5. Use “thinking questions” to makes students apply knowledge

“I ask a lot of higher-order thinking questions [on exams],” says Greiner-Hallman. “Instead of having them memorize a definition, I’ll give them a scenario and they have to think it through.” She does this live and in class, too, so they get an idea of what she is looking for and how her thought process works. “I’ll say out loud how I approached the questions—how I eliminated Answer A or Answer D and so forth, so they understand how you work through a higher-order, difficult question.”

6. Use low-stakes quizzes to keep information fresh

To reinforce information, Greiner-Hallman gives weekly Friday quizzes designed not to provoke anxiety: They are low both in points and difficulty. She also lets the students know that the content will slowly get more difficult as the weeks go by. “By the time of the exam, they have not only looked at this material every week, but they’ve had to look at harder versions of it each time,” she notes.

7. Use a trivia game to review big chunks of material

Inspired by the trivia nights at restaurants, Greiner-Hallman has designed trivia sessions to review particular chunks of information. Each round includes five questions that draw information from a particular book chapter or class section, and there can be as many rounds as she needs to cover the material comprehensively. As added incentive, students earn extra credit for participating. “I’m amazed at how effective it is for getting the students to look at the material,” she says. “They eventually started asking for that instead of more traditional reviews!”

8. Suggest using a blank sheet of paper as a pretest

To prepare properly for the breadth and depth of introductory exams, Greiner-Hallman says students should imagine—and practice—mapping out biological steps and processes on blank paper. “Before you take an exam, you have to prove to yourself that you can do this material without your notes and without your book,” she tells them. “Then you won’t have as much anxiety when you come in and do the exam.”

Greiner-Hallman also encourages students to find practice questions on the Internet on Course Hero and elsewhere. “The more you put yourself in a test-like position, the better you’re able to deal with test anxiety,” she says. “It increases your retention, it decreases your stress level, and you get better at retrieval of information.”

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