Hermann Ebbinghaus

A contemporary of Wundt, Hermann Ebbinghaus experimentally studied and described learning, forgetting, overlearning, and savings. Although he was the first person to publish an article on measuring the intelligence of school children (Binet and Simon used his sentence completion task in their intelligence test), Ebbinghuas is best known for his thorough study of memory and forgetting. His work is widely used and cited by cognitive psychologists today. 

Although memory had been discussed by philosophers and studied after the fact, no one before Ebbinghaus had studied the process of memory as it occurred. Philosophers started with existing associations and inferred backwards; Ebbinghuas studied the entire memory process by learning, forgetting and relearning material.

He also was the first person to study memory experimentally. An extremely thorough investigator, Ebbinghaus varied the size of the lists being memorized, standardized their presentation (one per tick of a clock), recorded the number of exposures needed to relearn. Keeping the words in order, like a pack of cards, he quickly looked that the word, and went on to the next one. When he reached the end of the list, he paused for 15 seconds, and went through the list again. He stopped only when he had achieved “complete memory” (prefect recall of the list one time). In addition to the forgetting curve (recall across time), Ebbinghaus plotted the retention curve (savings across time). Savings was the number of trials needed to relearn a list.

Some findings seem obvious. Ebbinghaus found that the more repetitions, the more learned. This practice effect had long been known but never experimentally verified. It also seems obvious that forgetting increases over time but Ebbinghuas showed that forgetting follows a predictable pattern. If time alone was the sole cause, forgetting would show a steady linear increase. But Ebbinghaus showed that forgetting occurs rapidly and then tapers off.

Ebbinghuas also found that over-learning (continued study after mastery) reduces the rate of forgetting and that meaningfulness helps recall. According to Ebbinghaus, not only are meaningful words easier to recall, it takes 10 times more exposure to material in order to learn random words.

Born six years before Freud, Ebbinghaus was raised near Bonn, Germany. He attended the University of Bonn and studied language, history and philosophy. Ebbinghaus was a rationalist and wrote his dissertation on Hartmann’s philosophy of the unconscious. His interest in memory came from reading Fechner’s book on psychophysics.

Although Wundt maintained that it was impossible to study higher mental processes with experiments, Ebbinghaus established procedures and principles still used today. Although not an empiricist, he (along with Konig, Hering and Stumpf) started the second journal devoted to psychology (Journal of Psychology and Physiology of the Sense Organs). Although not a child psychologist, in 1897 Ebbinghaus created a word completion test in order to measure the intelligence of children.


One Response to “Hermann Ebbinghaus”

  1. fariha naz on December 20th, 2009 6:05 pm

    i m really impressed by hermann ebbinghuas’s work. a lot of geniusity found in his work. i rally liked his work.

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