It happens to the best of us. We forget what we learn much sooner than we think. This happens despite of our best efforts to consciously remember what we learned. Retaining newly acquired information is tricky, and we end up forgetting things, sometimes within minutes!
It’s a real challenge to design training in such a way that learners retain what’s learned! But there is a way to make information ‘stick in their memory’ making recall possible. And that’s by taking the help of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve that gives us a framework on how memory works.
What is Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve?
Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve represents the process of forgetting. The curve shows how information is lost over time, especially when we do not make a conscious effort to retain that information.
What is the relevance of the Forgetting Curve?
Ebbinghaus saw that the forgetting curve tends to be very steep initially, and the amount of information lost is the highest soon after we acquire new information.
As is evident from the graph above, most of what we learn is forgotten within one hour! And, within 2 days of learning something, we forget almost 75% of what we learned.
What does that mean to you as training manager or L&D professional?
What it means is that your employees forget most of what they learned in training within one week. Hard to believe but true!
The good news is that long-term memory sets in after a day. We can see from the graph that the rate of forgetting tapers into a plateau after 1 day, and then levels-off.
This is what greatly interests trainers and instructional designers.
What are the factors that influence long-term memory?
According to Ebbinghaus, the ‘forgetting rate’ can be affected by a few factors that include:
Prior knowledge of content and its relevance
Long-term memory gets better if a learner can connect the new learning to information that is already part of their long-term memory. Previous knowledge on a particular topic makes the present training more meaningful. And that kicks in the long-term memory.
Even without prior exposure, if a learner finds the information meaningful, it tends to stick in their long-term memory. That’s because, if your brain believes something is important, it automatically focuses on it. And that helps in remembering.
Complexity of information
Working memory is all about information we are currently dealing with or are ‘working with’. With constant use or application, this ‘working memory’ can turn into ‘short-term’ or even ‘long-term’ memory. So, our existing ‘working memory’ is just a prelude to our short or long-term memory. The information in our ‘working memory’ is eventually discarded by the brain as it has limited capacity to deal with ‘working memory’.
That’s why remembering complex information or content is more difficult. Complex information tends to get lost when the brain is ‘not able to connect it to’ or ‘unable to focus on it for a longer duration’.
So, what can you do? Simple! Break down complex material into manageable pieces so the brain can deal with it effectively and remember it efficiently.
Information, when presented in an interesting way, tends to stick in the learner’s brain. Of course, as we already saw, a lot depends on the complexity of information and how meaningful or memorable it is for the learner.
So, what can help?
- Repeating the information
- Presenting it in the form of a story to engage and connect with your learner
- Presenting the information clearly and confidently
- Using different formats to cater to different learning styles
How can we beat the forgetting curve?
Ebbinghaus proposed two methods to fight the forgetting curve – Mnemonics and Spaced Repetition
Mnemonic techniques help ‘repackage’ information in an ‘interesting and easy to remember’ way, so information can be retrieved effortlessly when needed. Here’s an example of a mnemonic used by students to remember the names of planets in our solar system.
My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Noodles
Repetition & Spaced Learning
Ebbinghaus laid emphasis on the effect of repeating and reviewing acquired knowledge so that it gets embedded in long-term memory.
According to him, repeating the information within the first day of learning leads to better memory retention.
Reviewing what we’ve learned helps to retain information for much longer. Each revisit of the content leads to retention of larger chunks of information. This helps flatten the forgetting curve. A minimum of three reviews is needed for effective long-term memory retention.
Ebbinghaus suggested that with every repetition, the time needed before the next repetition also goes up. This is known as ‘spaced learning’.
According to Ebbinghaus, overcoming the forgetting curve needs much more than simply repeating a lesson incessantly. The spacing of these repetitions is also critical for maximum impact. Repeating new information several times within a short time (e.g., 1 hour) will not help.
Why is that?
Because we need to give memory a chance to start decaying before repeating the information. That is when repetition is the most effective. That is why learning has to be repeated at the right intervals.
The question is, ‘what is the right frequency?’.
As seen here, these repetitions must be spaced across multiple learning sessions. This allows our brain to recover between repetitions, and consolidate what’s being learned.
A repetition or a review of information can address the same concept in a slightly different form or format like an interactive exercise, a video, or a quiz. These different formats also help strengthen memory very effectively!
What can we learn from Ebbinghaus’ theory?
Ebbinghaus’ theory addresses the biggest challenge of corporate trainers – the ‘retention and recall’ of employees after training. We can apply this theory to help increase long-term memory retention by:
- Breaking down complex information into ‘easy to grasp’ and simple parts
- Making learning a ‘multi-sensory experience’ through different formats
- Using mnemonics and spaced repetition
- Make training interesting, engaging, and fun
Let me end with a quote by Will Thalheimer:
“Spaced Retrieval is like the aspirin of instructional design. It has multiple benefits and very few side effects.”