Hermann Ebbinghaus was born in Barmen, Germany on January 24, 1850. Ebbinghaus’ father was a rich merchant, and he encouraged Hermann to go to a University. At age 17, Ebbinghaus started his education at the University of Bonn studying history and philosophy, later he studied at the Universities of Berlin and Halle. He stopped his studies and served for the Prussian army in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. After the War he continued and finished his doctoral degree in Philosophy at the University of Bonn in 1873.
For the next seven years following the war, he tutored and studied independently in Berlin, France, and England and became more interested in Psychology. “In pursuit of his ambition to apply the scientific method to the study of ‘higher’ cognitive processes, Ebbinghaus invented a new method for the study of memory. ” (Tadeusz Zawidzki, 2005) In the late 1870s, Ebbinghaus became interested in the workings of human memory. As a young doctor of philosophy, he was determined to study higher mental processes and examine these processes that were neglected by William Wundt. Ebbinghaus was his own subject that he tested on. He wanted to develop a means of visualizing learning, which involves memorizing and forgetting, and discover how it works within the human mind. ” (Olivarez, 2010) The result of his experiments and research was Memory. Memory utilized the first use of nonsense syllables, which consisted of a consonant, a vowel, and another consonant, to discover the fundamental laws of learning. (Olivarez, 2010) To began his testing he needed to find a way to study true learning. His problem was to find material to learn that had absolutely no meaning or relationship to anything he already knew.
Using previously known words would have made use of previously existing knowledge and associations in his memory so therefore the nonsense syllables were meaningless, uninfluenced by previous learning. For his experiments, he decided to use himself as the test subject. He recorded the number of trials it took to memorize sets of these nonsense syllables, as well as the effects of variations such as relearning old material, or the meaningfulness of the syllables. Ebbinghaus also studied forgetfulness. After he would memorize lists of nonsense syllables he would measure how long it took him to forget the syllables.
His results have been summarized in the forgetting curve. According to Ebbinghaus, the level at which we retain information depends on the strength of your memory and the amount of time that has passed since learning. Meaning that as more time elapses after learning new information, the more the information is forgotten. Ebbinghaus’ findings reveal that the best performance of remembering occurs soon after the learning has happened. His experiments demonstrated that it is harder to memorize material that does not have significance or relevance to the learner. Olivarez, 2010) Ebbinghaus’s research also showed that if there is a lot of material to be learned than the amount of time it takes to learn it increases. This is what he calls the learning curve. He established that relearning is easier than learning something for the first time, and that it takes longer to forget material after each time you learn the same thing again. His work also suggested that learning is more effective when it is spaced out over time rather than crammed into a single marathon study session.
Hermann Ebbinghaus was the first to discover the spacing effect. In psychology, the spacing effect refers to the fact that humans and animals more easily remember or learn items in a list when they are studied a few times over a long period of time, rather than studied repeatedly in a short period time. In psychology Ebbinghaus found his own way. None of his professors could clearly understand how his thought process went. A major influence to his observation was the combination of philosophical and scientific points of view he found in Gustav Theodor Fechner.
During the time when Hermann Ebbinghaus began to study human memory, the study of higher psychological processes was very closely associated with the field of philosophy; in which Edward Titchener and Wilhelm Wundt dominated the field. He died in 1909 of pneumonia in Breslau, Germany. “Although his untimely death in 1909 prevented him from furthering the research area of human memory, the continued use of serial learning and the forgetting curve in psychological experiments proves the significance of his work in the field. ” (The Life and Contributions of Hermann Ebbinghaus, 2011)