Top tips to beat the forgetting curve in your training programmes

Although giving people information can be pretty easy, making sure that information is not forgotten is much, much harder. In this blog, we highlight some of the tricks, techniques and theories that can help your learning to beat the forgetting curve.

If you’re an L&D professional, you have probably heard of the dreaded forgetting curve hypothesised by German psychologist and memory expert Hermann Ebbinghaus in the late 19th century.

Ebbinghaus’s graph, which has become a familiar cornerstone of learning theory, suggests that most learners forget new information within weeks or days of the training – unless it’s frequently repeated and presented in meaningful ways. Learning teams have been finding new ways to beat the forgetting curve ever since it first emerged.

An image showing Ebbinghaus's forgetting curve as a diagram on a graph

Data from Egginghaus (1885), reproduced graph from Experimental Psychology (1954)

Ebbinghaus also correlated retention with how immediately retrievable information needed to be over time and the strength of a learner’s memory.

Your short-term memory filter decides between information that is and isn’t worth retaining. Actually remembering that information is trickier: unless we can recall it when it’s needed, we can’t really consider information to have been learnt.

You’ll probably become effective in the long-term at remembering a relative’s telephone number that you call on a weekly basis, for example. Conversely, you wouldn’t beat the forgetting curve if you were asked to recall your hotel room number from a one-night stay a month ago.

Our brains are quite efficient at keeping the knowledge you ‘need’ and disregarding that which is deemed non-vital. Essentially, it’s a case of use it or lose it: your memorisation of a piece of information that does not need to be retrieved on a regular basis will degrade.

So how can we use learning programmes to beat the forgetting curve?

A photo of a businessman in an office memorising elearning

Beat the forgetting curve with microlearning

In tackling the challenges the forgetting curve presents, one of the solutions often suggested is providing training that doesn’t take too much time for learners to take in.

Microlearning can be a good idea for a number of reasons in a compliance or regulatory context, when there’s a risk of overwhelming learners with too much complex or business-critical information at once.

Providing bursts of learning, such as short video tutorials, animations or condensed elearning, is an effective way of holding learners’ attention spans. It also allows them to focus on specific subjects and avoid overpowering learners with content.

It’s also handy when learners are repeating compliance modules or courses each year. In those situations, you might prefer to provide learners with short refresher content or give them the opportunity to prove that they do not need to retake parts of the training through initial testing.

A photo of a large blue depiction of the human brain

Chunking helps to beat the forgetting curve

Another useful way of dealing with potentially daunting amounts of information is to turn it into chunks that are more memorable and easily digestible.

In his book, The Ravenous Brain, Cambridge neuroscientist Daniel Bor explains chunking as the brain’s way of giving meaning to complex datasets.

He describes an undergraduate who remembered an astonishingly long sequence of digits following an experiment in which they spent an hour a day attempting to memorise them over a two-year period.

They achieved this feat of memory by relating the numbers back to their hobby of being a keen runner, and remembered them as if they were segments of running times.

This is a great (if somewhat extreme) example of how learning can be broken down and contextualised to make it much more memory-friendly.

A new joiner at a company will find a long list of regulatory requirements impossible to remember. If these regulations were presented to them in chunks, and made clearly relatable to their new role, the learner will be much more likely to gradually remember them and beat the forgetting curve.

A photo of a person working on learning on a laptop in an office

Can we beat the forgetting curve through spaced learning?

While we know that repetition is an integral part of learning, it’s also important to consider how that repetition is spaced and spread out.

According to Dr Barbara Oakley, a Professor at Oakland University, there are “biochemical processes” in learning that take time to complete outside of training.

You could liken this to exercise – it takes time to lose fat and gain muscle. Even on your resting days, your body is working on adapting and changing its physiological state to make stronger muscles.

In a learning context, making new neural connections takes time – known as the spacing effect. Dr Oakley takes the explanation a step further by suggests that revisiting a piece of learning every few days helps to build and reinforce the synapses created by the brain whenever something new is learned.

A blended approach to making compliance training memorable

The best compliance training programmes tend to deploy blended learning to engage learners and make material memorable. They might also beat the forgetting curve by incorporating:

  • Emotional hooks – For example, we used a ‘Day in the Life’ video narrative in one competition law course, with the aim of making learners relate to the characters and scenarios. This kind of approach should ideally elicit a strong response, such as empathy or frustration.
  • Job aids – These can be used to help a learner remember vital information more quickly. They are helpful for boosting the transfer of learning back to the workplace, supporting learners to put into practice the compliance training they have learned.
  • Social learning – Group workshops and forums can all make learning more ‘sticky’. Experts such as Harold Jarche have argued that organisations should concentrate more on creating networks of learning to drive knowledge accumulation and retention.

The good news, as you can see, is that there are an array of techniques that can be used to beat the forgetting curve.

Innovation takes time and planning, but pays off by creating a much more interactive and engaging experience for your learners. Making training memorable leads to worthwhile results and behaviour change in the workplace.

If you want to find out more about making memorable learning, contact us today to talk to one of our experienced learning consultants.

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