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  • Rikki Lee

Tackling the Forgetting Curve

While reviewing a recent article in The New York Times (“Forgot Where You Parked? Good”), we thought about the many things we’d learned in the past, then quickly forgotten. These include: 1) how many dimples are in a golf ball, 2) what is the capital of Wisconsin, and 3) who wrote the story “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

This information will be forever forgotten, since there’s rarely a need to remember it. Other, more important information (to the instructional designer, at least) includes how to reset the preferences in Adobe Captivate and how to make a voice-over narrator sound more engaging. This knowledge will remain accessible in our memory depending on whether we use it. For example:

  • Knowledge we use almost every day—such as recognizing signs of harassment in the workplace—will stay with us every day.

  • Knowledge we use once in awhile—such as changing toner in the office copier—must be kept nearby so that it’s refreshed in our minds, like through a company directory search, user manual, notes pinned to our cubicle wall, or smartphone voice memos.

  • Knowledge we rarely use—such as the serial number of our computer—doesn’t stay with us for much time afterward. But we can find out the information within a few minutes if we need to.

Nothing is really forgotten

While continuing to read the Times article, we also thought about how much our learners remember and how much they forget after a classroom or online session. According to neuroscientists, we don’t completely “forget” anything. Rather, the knowledge is still tucked away inside our brain. If we don’t make an effort to extract it, we may never be able to retrieve it. (Other times, it may pop up for no reason, like a lost childhood memory or a popular song.) In many cases, the knowledge is no longer meaningful to us, so our brain eventually shelves it. But it’s still in there, somewhere.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve (Source: Wikipedia)

We always talk about “climbing the learning curve,” but we should also discuss "tackling the forgetting curve.” The forgetting curve was theorized by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 19th century. He determined that we begin to forget within a few hours after learning knowledge for the first time (shown in the graph as the first curve on the left). After a few days, almost everything is forgotten. But with each additional repetition of learning (shown as the remaining curves), the amount of knowledge that’s retained increases and the amount that’s forgotten decreases.

Of course, we’d always like our curriculum to stay in our learners’ minds for as long as possible, because their jobs (and our reputations) depend on it. So, is there any way that we can reduce forgetting—that is, increase retention?

It’s a good idea to continue to offer opportunities for relearning important information that learners need. In fact, long-term retention may not be possible with only one application of training. Learning more than once will boost retention; spacing out learning events close together over time strengthens retention even further. Bringing important knowledge back to our memory through relearning can ensure that we won’t forget it next time, moving it from the tip of our tongue to the top of our mind.

Ways to tackle the forgetting curve

So, a relearning strategy should be part of every training program. Here are just a few techniques you can use to tackle the forgetting curve:

  1. Include as much essential information and practical skills in the curriculum, leaving out unimportant information that learners will rarely use.

  2. Include mnemonics and acronyms to help learners remember lists.

  3. Saturate dry, abstract content with rich, concrete context, expanding it with meaningful situations in which the knowledge made a difference.

  4. Go beyond PowerPoint slides by using videos, interactions, thinking activities and scenarios that illustrate concepts.

  5. Recommend that learners take notes, whether sitting in a classroom or while learning online. Jotting down the important information helps learners think about what they’re seeing and hearing, and they can keep it handy for relearning at any time.

  6. Provide “leave-behinds” such as an annotated slide presentation, online and print resources, and other reference material that learners can keep in their desk or in a main area when they need to refresh their memory.

  7. Every few days, send the learners an email with important points from a recent course, using quizzes and scenarios that challenge them to recall and make deeper connections with the knowledge.

  8. Require employees to take an online refresher course every few weeks so that they don’t forget policies, procedures and practices.

  9. Turn the learning into a game-like experience by adding experience points, "Easter eggs" and rewards.

  10. Place important information in high-visibility areas of the workplace, as well as virtual areas like the employee portal.

  11. Use spacing and interleaving techniques, so learning becomes less linear and more dynamic.

And before we forget: 1) most golf balls have 336 dimples, 2) Madison is the capital of Wisconsin, and 3) Herman Melville wrote “Bartleby, the Scrivener.”

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