Combatting the Forgetting Curve

In my past professional life, I often felt frustrated spending valuable time learning a new skill, only to struggle with recalling the information when I needed it.

For instance, after attending an advanced Excel seminar and being captivated by pivot tables, I couldn’t recall how to use them six months later when the perfect opportunity arose, forcing me to relearn them. More than ever, it reinforced for me the concept of ‘use it or lose it’ – and the need to find ways to implement new skills into my daily work life as quickly as possible.

The Forgetting Curve

My ‘aha’ moment came upon transitioning to instructional design, where I encountered Hermann Ebbinghaus’s late 19th-century concept of the Forgetting Curve. This theory illustrates how information fades over time without deliberate retention efforts, connecting directly to my earlier frustrations. His brief study suggests that information is lost over time if there is no attempt to retain it. The ‘curve’ shows that half of what we know on a subject is lost each day that we don’t do anything to embed that knowledge.

Educators have known for years how important it is to embed, or set, concepts into memory so they last and don’t succumb to loss because of the Forgetting Curve. As instructional designers, we use a variety of techniques to enhance learning retention. Here are a few of the common ones:

  1. Storytelling: If a learner can connect a concept to a memorable story, they can establish additional context and create an emotional connection. Memories tied to emotion are much more difficult to lose.
  2. Spaced repetition: This technique involves reintroducing concepts to bring them to the forefront of the learner’s mind. By correctly recalling information multiple times, it embeds deeper into memory, making it harder to forget. This principle underlies the practice of starting classes with a review of previously covered material.
  3. Active recall: This approach method forces learners to retrieve information from memory, proving more effective than passive review. Instead of mere cramming, which often leads to quick forgetting, active methods like flashcards or quizzes promote stronger and longer-lasting memory connections. 
  4. Feedback: When a learner answers a question incorrectly, immediate feedback is an opportunity to correct the mistake and reinforce the correct information. The repetition of the correct information, with an explanation of why their response was incorrect, helps to set the concept into memory. The next time they see that question they are less likely to answer it incorrectly.

The Right Tool for the Job

These are only a few of the many techniques in an instructional designer’s toolkit that help learners retain the information presented through a learning program. The technique used is determined by the nature of the information, how it is intended to be used, the complexity, etc.

Let’s look again at the forgetting curve specifically, in relation to multiplication. I struggled with learning my multiplication tables in grade school—they just wouldn’t stick for me. I’m a curious person who wants to know ‘why’ something is, but nobody could explain to me why 3 x 7 = 21. It just was. For me, I couldn’t create an emotional connection with multiplication. But…flash cards! As my mother helped me with flash cards each day, the tables became easier and easier to learn. Those daily flash card sessions were a combination of spaced repetition and active recall, and over time, those answers were cemented in my memory for ever.

When selecting the appropriate instructional tools, designers carefully consider the learning objectives, content, and context to ensure the most effective combat against the Forgetting Curve.

Do you have a learning challenge we can help you with? Our team has a full toolkit to draw upon. Reach out and share your challenge with us to see how we can help your learners overcome the Forgetting Curve.  

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