I recently found a box of papers from high school and was shocked to see what I once knew. There, in my handwriting, was a multi-step geometric proof, a creditable essay on the United States’ involvement in the Philippine revolution, and other work that today is as incomprehensible to me as a Swedish newscast.
Chances are this is a common experience among adults like me who haven’t stepped foot in the classroom for ages—which might suggest there wasn’t much point in learning the stuff in the first place. But then again, maybe there is.
Research shows that people can often retain certain information long after they learned it in school. For example, in one 1998 study, 1,168 adults took an exam in developmental psychology, similar to the final exam they had taken for a college course between three and 16 years earlier. Yes, much had been forgotten, especially within the first three years of taking the course—but not everything. The study found that even after 16 years, participants had retained some knowledge from the college course, particularly facts (versus the application of mental skills). Psychologists in another psychology study, this one published in 1991, examined memory for high-school math content and had similar results.
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