Counteracting the Forgetting Curve

I think the following has happened to us all. We attended a training course or workshop, listened diligently, participated in the exercises and made notes of the most important points in the folder of handouts provided. We returned to our desks filled with good intentions to put the things we learned into practice, but then it just didn’t work out that way. Not because we were not interested in learning or because the training event was not any good but because our email inbox always seemed full, papers covered our desks and meetings filled our calendars. If we don’t put our new skills or behaviours into practice or review the information in the file, what we learnt will be almost completely forgotten. 

There was a famous research project carried out at the end of the 19th Century by Hermann Ebbinghaus into memory and retention of information. We all know what a learning curve is and at times it can be pretty steep, especially when faced with the challenges of the current working environment. Ebbinghaus’s work gave rise to the term “The Forgetting Curve”. He found that the subjects of his research who were asked to read and then recall a list of words at various time intervals very quickly retained almost nothing. (See figure 1)  


The Forgetting Curve Figure 1 

For anyone involved in writing or delivering training and learning solutions, knowledge of this as a hurdle to overcome is invaluable as it helps to inform our design not only of the learning event itself but also the sort of follow up work we propose. 

There are a number of things that you can do to promote retention of information. One suggestion is to make use of a various strategies when designing the training event itself. The easiest and possibly most important one is context. The work done by Ebbinghaus used a list of random words for his subjects to remember which had no context or associations. When training workplace skills, use real life industry specific examples and encourage delegates to suggest situations that they actually encounter day to day where the new skills could be applied. Retention of the information will improve because it has been put into context. 

Another useful tool is repetition and review. By designing our training to include periods of review of the work done to date we not only check for understanding but also have an opportunity to repeat the information which aids memory retention. One effective tool to take this process a step further is to get each attendee to write down their personal learning points from the day. These are then copied and sent to them in a letter or email sometime after the course has concluded. Some organisations have taken this further and send a weekly tip, reminder or learning point by email to their employees. 

Once back in the workplace the most important way to ensure memory and retention of information is repetition. Ebbinghaus’s research looked into this too and produced a number of results, a very simple illustration of which is in figure 2.  


The Forgetting Curve Figure 2 

Practice makes perfect and what we are doing when practicing is repeating so that the brain and or muscles develop a memory of what is required often to the extent that we no longer have to consciously think of what we are doing. Sadly this is often where we fail those who attend training workshops as I outlined at the beginning of this piece. It does not matter how much a course facilitator encourages their learners to take what they have learned back to the office and use it, unless employers allocate time and promote a workplace culture that supports, and expects employees to practice and repeat the new skills and behaviours, the chances of their being retained are much lower.  

Businesses invest a great deal in training their staff in terms of time, money and energy and what they want to see is a return on that. Making sure the suggestions outlined here are followed is a good way of counteracting the forgetting curve and improving the retention of new skills, behaviours and information.