Promoting Learning by Combatting the Forgetting Curve

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Training and development is critical for every organization, and most invest heavily in learning each year. Training topics can include technical, technology or process updates, leadership or “soft” skills, and revenue generation (e.g., sales, innovation, practice development, etc.) just to name a few.  With the current dynamic work environment, new requirements for learning are almost ever-present, and the learning curve is clearly evident. Not as evident is that the learning curve is quickly impacted by the forgetting curve, and the forgetting curve can rapidly deplete the ROI on any learning investment IF the organization is not proactive.

The forgetting curve is a concept that was first researched by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885.  Ebbingaus studied the effect of the passage of time on memorization and recall of information.  The result of his research, which has been subsequently validated through additional studies, is “the forgetting curve”.  The forgetting curve shows that, on average, individuals forget about 70% of what we learn within about 24 hours! 70%! While that makes it sound like training is a wasted investment, let me be clear: it is not.  In fact, it is one of the most valued aspects of the employee experience.  However, because the forgetting curve is real, companies need to be smart about how they approach learning to get the greatest ROI.

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To maximize ROI, learning strategy and design should include three things:

  1. The original training design should be experiential and hands on. “…Involve me and I learn” is not just a quote, but also a sound learning principle. Participants who apply concepts in a “safe” environment have greater recall and success in execution following a learning event. Solid training design can slow the process of forgetting, but it must be coupled with other reinforcement methods for maximum impact.
  2. Reinforcement and active recall (especially spaced repetition).  Learning must be recognized as an ongoing journey, not an event.  A “training” session can be part of the journey, but greater change will happen if the training is reinforced with spaced “boosters” of content reinforcement.  This could be questions, concept refreshers, or application exercises. Regardless, training should always be coupled with follow-up over a period of weeks and months to optimize behavior change and learning.
  3. Applied examples.  At an appropriate time after initial training, asking the participants to periodically share examples of how they are applying the learning is powerful reinforcement.  It brings content to life and ensures the intended learning is translated into action.

To become a learning organization, you must embed these concepts within your culture.  In addition, make sure that training in not promoted as or seen as a “check the box” exercise or a one time event, but rather is understood as a process.  Finally, make sure learning is about more than just knowledge, it is about true development, behavior change, and sustainability.  If you achieve these shifts, both your employees and your company will benefit!