Tip #575: The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

“The process of learning requires not only hearing and applying but also forgetting and then remembering again.”  John Gray

Learning retention and transfer are the key goals of training. I recently read an article that explained why post-training reinforcement is so essential. It referenced the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, which was entirely new to me.

The following information is drawn from an article titled: Use It or Lose It by Art Kohn, who is the CEO of AKLearning. All of the words in “parentheses” are Kohn’s. The italics are mine.

“… Modern neuroscience divides memory into three distinct phases: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Encoding refers to absorbing new information (for example, in a live seminar), and then giving the material meaning by relating it to past knowledge, forming mental images, and creating associations among information that needs to be remembered.

Once an idea is initially learned, it can be consolidated and enters storage. Our short-term memory stores information for about 30 seconds. Our long-term memory can store information for a lifetime. Finally, retrieval refers to a series of mental processes that make it possible to retrieve the information exactly when and where it is needed.

All three processes are essential to successful memory, and failures can occur at any stage and lead to forgetting. Most training programs emphasize the encoding phase. We try to author information that has clear learning objectives and that is relevant, engaging, and emotionally compelling. Unfortunately, few programs are designed to help learners permanently store information or help them when they need to retrieve essential knowledge. This neglect has resulted in enormous losses.”

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus studied human forgetting and created a graph that he called the “Forgetting Curve.” He identified the fact that people forget more than 50% of new learning after just one hour. Within a day, people forget about 70%! Other studies have validated his research conclusion: “that people—no matter their age, no matter how smart, no matter how motivated—forget material at an alarming rate.”

Dr. Henry Roediger of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri has spent 40 years exploring how to overcome the forgetting curve. He found that “it is possible to signal the brain that a particular piece of information is important and that it should retain it.”

Roediger determined that that “if you provide the learners with a series of retrieval opportunities, known as boosters, in the hours and days after training, you will cause the learner’s brain to regard information as important and retain it.”

A booster can be anything (a focus question, a problem study, a quiz) that requires learners to retrieve information from long-term memory. And once the learner has recalled the information, that will reset the learner’s forgetting curve! A series of boosters will continually reset the forgetting curve, maximizing long-term retrieval.

Booster events do not have to be very long. A five second booster can be just as effective as a booster that is 30 seconds or several minutes in length. This is because “the purpose of a booster experience is simply to provide the learner with a retrieval opportunity to cue the brain to retain the related information.”

It is important to note, “that a booster event will improve retention for an entire learning experience, and not just for the particular topics in the quiz question. This “halo effect” means that just a few booster experiences can enhance the retention of the entire training session.”

I have posted a copy of the Hermann Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve on my website.

What do you do to reinforce learning after a training program?

May your learning be sweet.


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