What is the Forgetting Curve?

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If it wasn’t for the ‘Forgetting Curve’, your learners could complete an online learning unit once and it would stick in their brains forever. There would be no issues when it comes to knowledge retention. But life would be boring if everything was that easy! As such, in a somewhat funny way, we’re lucky to have the Forgetting Curve!

But what is this mysterious curve? Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, more commonly known as the forgetting curve, is a memory model. It shows how we lose information over time if we don’t try to retain it.

Understanding how the curve works can help you to take action and prevent yourself from forgetting new skills or information. As such, in this article, we will walk you through the forgetting curve, its history and ways to combat the curve!

Let’s go!

The Forgetting Curve – Ebbinghaus’ Epiphany

First, let’s look at the history of the forgetting curve. In the late 19th century, 1885 to be specific, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus tested his memory over various periods of time.

He did so by conducting various tests on himself to test his hypotheses. Ebbinghaus’ tests focused on him memorising meaningless three letter words, like ‘DOK’ and ‘EHD’. He then tested how well he could retain that information after different time periods.

Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve explained

Once he’d gathered all the data from his spaced learning studies, he plotted it on a graph that looked a little something like this.

Now, contrary to appearances, Ebbinghaus didn’t invent a fun slide. He’d actually discovered the nature of memory loss over time.

The graph illustrates that when you first learn something, the information disappears at an exponential rate. In other words, you lose most of your newly acquired knowledge in the first couple of days, after which the rate of loss tapers off.

Once he had discovered the exponential decline of memory, Ebbinghaus could identify the factors that contribute to it. Based on his research, the level of retention depends on:

1. The strength of your memory

Perhaps unsurprisingly, individuals can recall stronger memories for a longer period than weaker ones. We remember less and less of our weakest, or non-relevant, memories as the days go by if we don’t try to retain the information. After all, our brain will make room for new memories.

2. The time that has passed since your learned the information

In a training context, the forgetting curve shows that learners will forget an average of 90% of what they have learned within the first seven days. And you were wondering why your training programme wasn’t having the impact you’d hoped it would!

The Spacing Effect: How to Combat the Forgetting Curve

It all sounds pretty scary and daunting, doesn’t it? This presents an obvious challenge for learning and development professionals. After all, your aim is to create an effective training programme your learners will love.

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

But what is the point in trying to learn new skills or information if you are going to lose it anyway?

We’ll tell you why! Now that you understand how memory works, you can do something about it. In fact, there are various tactics that you can use to overcome the forgetting curve and make sure you won’t lose your precious learning efforts.

Here are just some of the few ways you can leverage spaced repetition to improve recall in your training initiatives:

1. Reinforce your training regularly

Ebbinghaus discovered that reviewing new information at key points on the curve can help you to reduce the rate at which you typically forget. As such, every time you reinforce your training, the rate of decline reduces.

The testing effect says that by simply testing a person’s memory, that memory will become stronger.

This, on the other hand, means that staging frequent training interventions as part of your learning campaign can help you to solidify new information through active recall.

As the biggest drop happens just hours after you learn new information, it’s always a good idea to go back to the training material within the next few days. The more you have studied the topic, the longer gaps you can leave between reinforcement sessions.

Similarly, Ebbinghaus discovered that information is easier to recall when it’s built upon things you already know. Try to use as many real-world examples and contexts to build upon your learner’s previous knowledge. This will not only help them to remember the topic better, but to comprehend how it can be beneficial in different situations.

2. Improve the clarity of your training

Make the information easier to absorb in the first place. If you learn something from an essay or an article, it’s easier to forget the meaning or miss it entirely.

Instead, try to represent your information in a diagram, or create a video describing the learning objective. The clearer the information, the better your brain can focus on remembering all relevant information instead of only remembering how difficult the topic was to comprehend.

3. Make your training more relevant

When it comes to corporate training, the learning content should be highly relevant to each learner and it should have meaning. After all, we lose weak and non-relevant memories first.

An off-the-shelf learning resource won’t have the same impact as a custom-made one. As such, in every piece of training you produce, never forget the core purpose of your organisation.

We call this Epic Meaning. Epic Meaning helps you to create a sense of purpose. And how does this help in learning? Making your training more relevant has two main benefits. The more relevant the training, the is easier it is to recall, and the common focus continually encourages the behaviours that are important to your business.

4. Make your training more interactive

People learn better when they’re actively involved than when they’re passive observers. If you don’t give your learners an opportunity to interact with the content, they’ll soon drift off and lose concentration.

Adding elements of gameplay to the learning is a great way to keep the learner involved and engaged for longer. In fact, they might even enjoy their training! After all, the purpose of gamification is to make boring or difficult topics easier to understand by making them more engaging and fun.

As a recap, make sure to watch what our very own Juliette Denny has to say about different ways of combating the forgetting curve!

Final Word

There you have it! Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve in all of its glory.

While all memories do not follow the curve, it can be extremely helpful in designing effective training interventions. After all, you can identify the best approaches for spaced repetition that ensures your learners remember what they learn, some which we have discussed in this article.

Make sure to reinforce your training regularly, create clear and meaningful training material and make sure your training is more interactive and you will be off to an excellent start. However, if you want more ways to improve retention in your training, check out our Guide to The Science of Behaviour Change!

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