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Defeating the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve: The Key to Workplace Learning Success

Have you ever attended a training session or workshop at work, only to find yourself forgetting most of what you learned within a few days?

I have except replace a few days with a few minutes. Yes, I’m that forgetful sometimes.

It’s a frustrating experience that most can relate to unless you’re a robot or were blessed with an amazing memory.

You’re not alone if you forget most of what you learned shortly after learning it. But that’s fine. If you forget it, was it that important in the first place? Or should you even have been learning it at all?

There are methods to combat this and ways of living with the reality that people forget.

First, we’ll explore the fascinating concept of the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve. Ebbinghous is a smart guy who was ahead of his time and formulated that people forget… Pretty revolutionary, right?

Just kidding just kidding. He was pretty smart and is cited a lot in research. His research has also been reproduced in other learning science studies.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, named after German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, describes the exponential rate at which we forget newly acquired information over time.

People forget. You don’t need a scientific study to know that.

According to Ebbinghaus’ research, we tend to forget a staggering 70% of what we learned within just 24 hours. I’m always hesitant to state such nice round percentages (or any percentages), but you get the idea.

Nobody forgets exactly 70% of what they learned; they forget what they forget, and it depends on many factors. Was it useful to them? Is the content interesting? How well was it taught? Did they fall asleep in training? Etc. Etc.

A visualization of what the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve might look like on a graph.
This is what the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve might look like visualized. It’s very imperfect and essentially says that people forget stuff over time.
Forgetting curve. (2023, October 17). In Wikipedia.

You get the idea. Nobody’s mind works so well that they don’t forget anything. That’s the ultimate point. Within a single day, a huge amount of the knowledge we gained slips away from our memory, almost as if it was never there in the first place.

But why does this happen? And more importantly, how can we combat it? Spaced repetition is one of the most common ways you see to combat the forgetting curve.

Spaced repetition involves reviewing and revisiting information at increasingly longer intervals, maximizing the chances of retaining it in our long-term memory. This technique has been proven effective in combating the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve and enhancing learning retention.

But I don’t think it’s the best workplace learning option. I’ll propose two much better options backed by absolutely no science, just the fact that the workplace is different when it comes to learning.

Spaced repetition can help employees learn better, but more important tactics exist.

Why’s it different? We don’t tend to go for learning as much in the workplace; we go for performing. That’s right, performance is infinitely more important than simply learning.

Unless you can do something with what you learned, then it’s kind of useless for work, at least. That’s one reason we are promoters of ditching learning objectives for performance objectives.

This post will cover a. bit of the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, exploring its implications for workplace learning. But it will also go a bit deeper into more important things you can do than simply knowing that people forget and then trying to put information into their heads even more.

We’ll discuss strategies and techniques that can help organizations and employees take advantage of performance on the job to drive strategies more than learning. This ultimately leads to improved success in the workplace.

If you need to know more about how we forget stuff (if you forgot), check out the next section on how the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve works.

Understanding the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve: How We Forget Information Over Time

Everybody forgets. But more importantly, everyone forgets differently. Some may have better strategies for remembering, others may have issues remembering (me), and others don’t have the foundational knowledge to learn and make the connections to remember.

It’s pretty obvious that people forget. Ebbinghaus was the first to put a (semi) scientific study to it and state the obvious, though. Okay, maybe what he did was a bit more complex than that. I was just trying to make a joke.

But honestly, his study wasn’t complex, didn’t prove anything, nor is it ultimately amazing. But what came from his basic work in 1885 is important. It’s what the forgetting curve is based on.

While you could say we forget about 70% of what we have learned within 24 hours, that’s untrue. But that’s not important.

What’s important is that we forget over time, which increases rapidly the further we get from when we learn something. There are more factors involved in forgetting, a lot more. And some of them are more important than others.

People forget over time. The longer the time, the more we forget.

However, time is one factor, and that’s the focus of this post. The forgetting curve is completely different for everyone, but there are some ways to combat it for everyone.

If we don’t take proactive steps to reinforce our learning, a significant portion will be lost forever.

Several factors contribute to this phenomenon. One factor is the decay of memory traces in our brains. Our brain creates neural connections or memory traces when we learn something new. However, if these connections are not reinforced through repetition or application, they weaken over time and eventually fade.

In addition to decay, interference also plays a role in forgetting. As we continue to acquire new information, it can interfere with previously learned material, making it harder for us to retrieve that knowledge when needed.

There are many other ways forgetting occurs or why some people learn better than others. All of that aside, let’s explore how it impacts workplace learning and how you can combat forgetting what’s learned in the workplace.

The Impact of Forgetting on Workplace Learning

What happens if people forget what they learned in workplace training?

I can tell you it’s pretty hard to use knowledge you don’t have. That means companies are investing in employee training, and that money vanishes into thin air.

Without considering the fact that people forget and do something about it, employees are likely to forget a significant portion of what they have learned.

This has several implications for organizations. This means that the time and resources invested in training programs may not yield the desired results if the knowledge is not retained.

Another pretty negative impact? Employees may struggle to perform job tasks effectively if they forget crucial information or skills. It’s pretty hard to perform tasks that you don’t remember how to perform.

Resources and time are wasted when employees forget what they learned in training.

While you don’t need the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve to know people forget, it still highlights the importance of continuous learning and reinforcement. It’s not enough to provide one-time training sessions or workshops.

There are many better ways to train employees than long and boring sessions. Unfortunately, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Many companies and “professional” training companies are providing services that are wasting money and resources.

The most common tactic to combat the forgetting curve is spaced repetition. It’s not the only option, and it’s not the best if other strategies aren’t changed in alignment with it. So let’s take a deeper look!

Spaced Repetition: A Technique to Deal the Forgetting Curve

One effective technique (if applied in conjunction with methods covered below) for combating the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is spaced repetition or spaced learning. Spaced repetition involves reviewing and revisiting information at specific intervals, with each review spaced further in time.

This represents how the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve might look but with spaced repetition, which reduces how fast forgetting happens.
Forgetting curve. (2023, October 17). In Wikipedia.

The idea behind spaced repetition is that by spacing out reviewing content, we can use the brain’s ability to strengthen memory traces through repeated exposure. Each time we revisit the information, we reinforce those neural connections, making it easier to recall the knowledge when needed.

The idea behind spaced repetition is great, but it needs to be used purposefully and only when necessary.

That’s only impactful if we need to recall knowledge and memorize tasks or information. But how often do we need to memorize information?

Sometimes it’s necessary to memorize, but more often than not, accurate and effective performance is more important. There are other better methods to accomplish that than even spaced repetition.

There are various ways to incorporate spaced repetition into workplace learning. One approach is to schedule regular review sessions after initial training or onboarding programs. Many learning experience platforms (LXPs) can regularly surface information to employees at regular intervals.

These tools can send reminders or prompts for employees to review previously learned material at strategic times, maximizing retention without overwhelming them with excessive information.

Better Methods than Spaced Repetition for Learning in the Workplace

There are better options than spaced repetition for most workplace learning. Keep in mind that I said most. Sometimes people do need to memorize and be able to recall information immediately.

But more often than not, employees don’t need to memorize everything. In those cases, these two methods are much better for training than trying to implement spaced repetition. They’ll make courses and classes more effective and help employees perform their jobs more accurately and effectively.

The two methods for training employees are to make learning more effective by only training them for what they can use immediately and regularly. Let’s take a look at making training time effective first.

Using What Was Learned Immediately

It’s no secret that knowledge is best solidified when put into practice, and the workplace provides the perfect opportunity for this. Employees who fail to use the newly acquired knowledge soon after learning it are more likely to forget it.

Therefore, to truly overcome the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, it’s essential to immediately incorporate the active implementation of learned concepts, skills, and strategies in the workplace.

If employees aren’t immediately applying what they’re learning, they probably shouldn’t be learning it. That’s one reason we emphasize that employees should learn something as close to when they use it as possible.

Anything that employees can’t or won’t use immediately after learning it should be available to them in some other way and at some other time. A good example is when learning about a new time clock software.

Having employees use what they learn immediately is more effective than spaced repetition.

Employees probably clock in and out every day, meaning they will use it immediately. But they don’t request time off every day. In that case, some will use it immediately, but most will not. That means requesting time off shouldn’t be in a course or training session.

If employees won’t use what they learned immediately, they shouldn’t be trained on it. When training is done well, by immediately using their new skills or knowledge, employees reinforce their learning and create stronger memory traces.

Always ask this question: When will they use what’s being learned?

If the answer is more than a day to a week max, they shouldn’t be trained on it. Nobody’s going to remember that.

That same example can be applied to the next strategy for dealing with forgetting.

Training Only on What’s Used Regularly

Employees need to use what they learn immediately, but it should also be done regularly. If they use what they learned immediately but don’t use it again for a month, what good is that?

It will be forgotten!

Yes, you could say spaced repetition would be perfect for that. But would it?

Do you want to constantly reinforce information and tasks for something only used once a month?

Sounds like a waste of time to me.

A better option for dealing with the forgetting curve when something isn’t used regularly is to make resources available to employees. That means performance support is the perfect option. That means help is available to help them perform their job when and where they need it without memorizing or remembering anything.

Performance support is often overlooked as a form of training, but it’s one of the most important and effective ways to train employees. Not only that, but it’s also great at dealing with the forgetting curve.

Using what employees learned immediately and frequently is more effective than spaced repetition.

You can’t forget what you don’t need to remember in the first place! Just refer to the job aid, checklist, quick reference guide, or other performance support available.

Workplace training is geared towards helping employees perform better. Coincidentally, performance support is geared towards improving employee performance in the workplace.

How cool is that?

It’s like performance support was made to deal with the forgetting curve. No thanks spaced repetition, no need to waste time reinforcing something where support is always available.

Before any content is put into a training session (asynchronous or synchronous training), you should ask two questions:

  • When will this need to be used?
  • How often will this need to be used?

That will help you determine if the content should be in a custom eLearning course or if it shouldn’t be there and instead should be in a job aid or something else.

By identifying the most critical and frequently performed tasks, organizations can prioritize training in those areas and put that training in the correct form.

That’s what working with a good instructional design consultant will get you. You get to work with a training professional who can help you develop the correct strategy instead of shoehorning all content into their preferred form of training.

The best part is that when performance support is available, employees will get natural reinforcement if they use it enough. That creates spaced repetition naturally and helps employees memorize tasks when necessary rather than when told to.

Workplace Learning Is All About Application

Unlike in school, learning in the workplace is all about applying what you learn to your job. It could be an abstract application or a precise process learned. Any way you look at it, learning is done to apply to the job, not simply to learn.

Defeating the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve isn’t about hammering the information into employees’ heads more (spaced repetition). Nope, it’s about creating relevant training that only has what employees need, nothing more.

That’s one reason we say nothing is important if everything is important. If everything’s important, then it will all be forgotten or at least minimally learned. Stick to the relevant information for training and put everything else in performance support.

Every piece of information being trained on should be made for application on the job and quickly. If it can’t be applied quickly, then the training needs to account for that with examples or ways to help employees apply it immediately.

The application of learned concepts and skills is crucial for several reasons.

Transfer of Learning

When employees apply what they have learned in their jobs, they transfer their knowledge from a learning environment to a practical setting. It goes from vague and theoretical to real and cement.

This transfer of learning helps solidify understanding and enables employees to adapt their knowledge to different contexts or challenges.

Retention through Practice

The act of applying learned concepts or skills requires practice, which reinforces memory retention. When employees actively engage with their learning by using it in real-world scenarios, they strengthen their memory traces and enhance long-term retention.

If it can’t be used through practice, then why are they learning it in the first place?

Building Confidence

Employees gain confidence in their abilities by applying what they have learned successfully. This confidence boosts motivation and encourages further learning and development.

This is a great way to create a culture of learning at your workplace.

Create Opportunities for Practical Application in the Workplace

Organizations can implement several strategies to foster the practical application of learned concepts and skills in the workplace.

Remember, you should only use these when employees will apply their knowledge quickly and often. No matter how many practical application options employees have, if they don’t need it, then it won’t help them.

I can’t practice something I’m simply not going to use.

On-the-Job Training

This involves providing opportunities for employees to learn while performing their regular job duties. Mentoring programs, job rotations, or shadowing experiences can expose employees to real-life situations where they can apply what they learned.

Project-Based Learning

Assigning employees to projects that require the application of specific knowledge or skills can be an effective way to reinforce learning. These projects provide a practical context for employees to practice and refine their abilities.

Just be sure they are practical and useful. Project-based learning is only useful if relevant and can be applied regularly to the job. If done improperly, this tactic is at risk of being just as useless as training for information not used for weeks.

Simulations and Role-Playing

Simulations and role-playing exercises allow employees to simulate real-life scenarios in a controlled environment. This enables them to practice their skills, receive feedback, and make adjustments before applying them in workplace situations.

This is one of our favorite tactics for sales training and is commonly used. While nobody loves it, and it makes people nervous, that doesn’t change the fact that role-playing is extremely useful.

Then there are simulations, a great tactic for learning company software. We specialize in using software simulations to help employees get realistic practice. Again, this is only useful if employees use what they have learned quickly and apply it regularly.

Wrap Up

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve poses a significant challenge to workplace learning. You don’t have to call it the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve; you just need to call it forgetting.

We’re all prone to it, and it happens to the best of us. If you don’t use it, then you’ll lose it.

There are some great ways to deal with forgetting, though. You should try to apply the best two options first.

  • Have employees use what they learn immediately.
  • Only train what employees will use regularly.

If these two cannot be applied, there’s always spaced repetition. Spaced Repetition can be used to reinforce what employees learned at regular intervals. This is only useful if what they’re learning truly should be learned and remembered (and can be).

Spaced repetition won’t help if employees go weeks without using a skill.

So keep all that in mind when trying to prevent employees from forgetting what they learned in training.

By incorporating these strategies into workplace learning programs, organizations can ensure that employees only spend time learning things they need to know. It will also ensure they have the right support for things they don’t need to learn.

Schedule a free consultation if you’re working on fine-tuning your workplace training to maximize employee effectiveness. We can work with you to learn about your goals and the best strategy to achieve them.

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