Learning from the Forgetting Curve

by Julie Winkle Giulioni | Posted | Learning

Learning from the Forgetting Curve

It happens to everyone. You attend training or a conference. You return to work enlightened and inspired. You commit to acting on what you’ve learned. And the next day, you can barely remember the title of the event. Welcome to the forgetting curve.

Forget about it!

Nearly 150 years ago, Hermann Ebbinghaus introduced a small image with big impact. Now known as the ’forgetting curve,’ the result of Ebbinghaus’ research vividly demonstrates how quickly we lose new knowledge or learning following a training event.

forgetting curve

Ebbinghaus quantified the exponential nature of forgetting. He found that the sharpest decline occurs during the first 20 minutes, with continued rapid forgetting throughout the first hour, and a leveling off after approximately one day. His research suggests that at the end of a month, people retain less than 20% of what was originally learned.

But smart leaders and their organizations aren’t willing to succumb to this forgetting phenomenon. They know that there are ways to combat the inevitable effects of forgetting and, in the process, improve the return they see on their investment in learning, training and development.

This was a significant focus at Training magazine’s recent annual conference, Training 2014, held in San Diego. The organizers partnered with retention expert Dr. Art Kohn to implement his ‘boostering’ program around each keynote session.

Dr. Kohn’s simple and straightforward process involves following up with participants at key points after the learning event — using small opportunities to draw on the experience and remember it.

As follow up to a keynote I attended, I received a series of short automatically generated emails with:

  • Quick one-item content quizzes and personalized feedback
  • Multiple choice questions about my use of the material
  • Pulse surveys with immediate feedback about my cohort’s position on a topic

Each reminder required less than a minute of my time, but caused me to reactivate the memory of the session, drawing it to the surface and recommitting to its use.

Getting ahead of the curve

But, the question is, who has a fancy online system in place to make these memory triggers magically happen? Answer: very few people.

The good news is that there are simple and inexpensive ways that organizations or individual leaders can get ahead of the forgetting curve and make the most of their training investments. Here are just a few examples:

  • Forward an article to participants following training. But, in recognition of their already full plates and to ensure that the article doesn’t get lost in that to-be-read pile, draw attention to a particular point or paragraph that relates specifically to what was learned. As part of your message, consider posing a provocative rhetorical question. It doesn’t matter if they read the whole article; what matters is that the memory is tickled by the connection.
  • Send an email that briefly recaps the learning outcomes of a session, inviting participants to respond by simply sharing which one they are focusing on most. It doesn’t matter if everyone responds; memories are still activated.
  • Create a simple online survey (using free tools that are available) that allows participants to reflect on the most useful training content and also see how others respond.
  • Catch others performing recently learned skills or behaviors well. In addition to the motivational bump associated with recognition, this acts as an in-the-moment and visceral reminder.
  • Broadcast or publicize instances of people demonstrating new behaviors. But don’t leave it at that. Since you can’t be everywhere, invite others to share their successes. If you have the platform to support it, offer to post brief cell phone video messages created by participants that spotlight how they’re productively using new skills.
  • Offer a challenge (and a prize) to the first person who responds to an email with the correct answer to a simple question based upon the training content. You’ll generate a little competitive — and cognitive — energy.
  • Create a hashtag for your training event and ask participants to send a 140-character message recapping what they remember most. Those who tweet and/or read the tweets of others will realize the greatest results; but the memories of others will still be stirred by the request.

Forgetting is a natural, predictable human phenomenon… but remember there are simple and quick steps you can take to interrupt the process, redraw the curve, and enhance the return on your training and learning investments. And once you see the positive effects, you’ll likely never forget to do it again!

Your Turn: When it comes to employee learning and development, what is one way that your organization stays ahead of the forgetting curve?

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