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Forget Me Not – How to Ensure Learners Remember

May 19, 2011

It seems ironic that the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus has been forgotten for such a long period of time. However, changes do seem to be afoot as I’ve come across two applications recently that build upon his work.

Way back in 1885 Ebbinghaus was the first person to discover the exponential rate at which we forget. He conducted a number of experiments on himself  to see how he remembered nonsense three-letter words (for example “ZOG” and “FOT”). When he plotted his results in a graph this is what he found:

Hermann Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Hermann Ebbinghaus, ‘Über das Gedächtnis’, 1885

Take a moment to study the graph. It shows that after just a short period of time we forget the majority of learned information. How does that make you feel about the training you design and deliver and your delegates’ ability to remember it? Do you have a sinking feeling in your stomach? I know I did the first time I saw this graph.

The good news is there are a number of techniques that can help people to recall information. Applying these will make the forgetting curve shallower, as shown in the green lines in the graph.

  • Make the material relevant to the learner and linked to what they already to increase the chances of them remembering it.
  • Use mnemonic techniques (for example SMART = Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound).
  • Spaced repetition of material at specific time intervals also helps people to remember.

Whilst these methods will help people recall information they do nothing to help them put it into practice. This, after all, is what we’re really interested in – what people do with the knowledge they have gained. This next important step is something I’m passionate about and the careful design of implementation guides and job aids is vital here.

As you can see from the graph; what happens after the learning event is, if anything, more important than the learning event itself. Remember this when designing your next piece of training.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 19, 2011 3:24 pm

    Hey Rob,

    Great to see somebody raising Ebbinghaus’ research once again.

    So many times I hear people talk about learning curves and what we can do to decrease it, shorten it blah, blah, blah, but nobody ever talks (or listens when I talk) about ensuring that the ‘learning’ is retained long enough for it to be transferred and embedded into the workplace. So once again, thanks for reminding us all about this.


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