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Hermann Ebbinghaus

1850-1909
German psychologist whose work resulted in the development of scientifically reliable experimental methods for the quantitative measurement of rote learning and memory.

Hermann Ebbinghaus (Corbis-Bettmann. Reproduced with permission.)

Born in Germany, Hermann Ebbinghaus received his formal education at the universities of Halle, Berlin, and Bonn, where he earned degrees in philosophy and history. After obtaining his philosophy degree in 1873, Ebbinghaus served in the Franco-Prussian War. For the next seven years following the war, he tutored and studied independently in Berlin, France, and England. In the late 1870s, Ebbinghaus became interested in the workings of human memory. In spite of Wilhelm Wundt's assertion in his newly published Physiological Psychology that memory could not be studied experimentally, Ebbinghaus decided to attempt such a study, applying to this new field the same sort of mathematical treatment that Gustav Fechner (1801-1887) had described in Elements of Psychophysics (1860) in connection with his study of sensation and perception.

Using himself as both sole experimenter and subject, Ebbinghaus embarked on an arduous process that involved repeatedly testing his memorization of nonsense words devised to eliminate variables caused by prior familiarity with the material being memorized. He created 2,300 one-syllable consonant-vowel-consonant combinations—such as taz, bok, and lef— to facilitate his study of learning independent of meaning. He divided syllables into a series of lists that he memorized under fixed conditions. Recording the average amount of time it took him to memorize these lists perfectly, he then varied the conditions to arrive at observations about the effects of such variables as speed, list length, and number of repetitions. He also studied the factors involved in retention of the memorized material, comparing the initial memorization time with the time needed for a second memorization of the same material after a given period of time (such as 24 hours) and subsequent memorization attempts. These results showed the existence of a regular forgetting curve over time that approximated a mathematical function similar to that in Fechner's study. After a steep initial decline in learning time between the first and second memorization, the curve leveled off progressively with subsequent efforts.

Ebbinghaus also measured immediate memory, showing that a subject could generally remember between six and eight items after an initial look at one of his lists. In addition, he studied comparative learning rates for meaningful and meaningless material, concluding that meaningful items, such as words and sentences, could be learned much more efficiently than nonsense syllables. His experiments also yielded observations about the value of evenly spaced as opposed to massed memorization. A monumental amount of time and effort went into this ground-breaking research. For example, to determine the effects of number of repetitions on retention, Ebbinghaus tested himself on 420 lists of 16 syllables 340 times each, for a total of 14,280 trials. After careful accumulation and analysis of data, Ebbinghaus published the results of his research in the volume On Memory in 1885, while on the faculty of the University of Berlin. Although Wundt argued that results obtained by using nonsense syllables had limited applicability to the actual memorization of meaningful material, Ebbinghaus's work has been widely used as a model for research on human verbal learning, and Über Gedachtnis (On Memory) has remained one of the most cited and highly respected sourcebooks in the history of psychology.

In 1894, Ebbinghaus joined the faculty of the University of Breslau. While studying the mental capacities of children in 1897, he began developing a sentence completion test that is still widely used in the measurement of intelligence. This test, which he worked on until 1905, was probably the first successful test of mental ability. Ebbinghaus also served on the faculties of the Friedrich Wilhelm University and the University of Halle. He was a cofounder of the first German psychology journal, the Journal of Psychology and Physiology of the Sense Organs, in 1890, and also wrote two successful textbooks, The Principles of Psychology (1902) and A Summary of Psychology (1908), both of which went into several editions. His achievements represented a major advance for psychology as a distinct scientific discipline and many of his methods continue to be followed in verbal learning research.

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