The Forgetting Curve


By Adrian Harvey

Ever heard of the phrase ‘a learning curve’? It refers to the period of when a person is learning new skills and information and it becomes a lot to process. The learning curve then progresses to a point where an individual has learnt enough to perform the required processes and functions of the task or job at hand.

Did you also know that there is a ‘forgetting curve’ as well? Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist born in 1850 and credited with discovering the ‘forgetting curve,’ the ‘learning curve,’ and ‘spaced learning.’ Even though his work is over a century old it still forms the basis of our understanding of how the brain works. Ebbinghaus’ work was described as “heroic and the single most brilliant investigation in the history of psychology,” by noted psychologist William James.

Ebbinghaus proved that the human brain rapidly forgot what it had just been taught. He mapped this degradation of memory on a curve – The Forgetting Curve. The graphic below shows a representation of the Forgetting Curve, illustrating that in the first 24 hours the brain retained just 40% of the content that it was exposed to. Perhaps most significantly after about 30 minutes the brain will only have retained 50% of the content – probably well before the delegate even gets home!

forgetting curve

If you’ve trained your staff and it seems nothing has gone in, you can be sure it’s simply how the human brain works.  So is it any wonder then that the corporate training industry struggles to show material ROI on training interventions that are not supported with an effective strategy for knowledge retention?

The good news is that Ebbinghaus not only discovered the Learning and Forgetting curve, he also learnt how to tackle the effects of the these phenomena with the use of spaced learning or interval learning. This method involves revisiting a subject at regular intervals. The results of this method is that the retention of that subject matter is not only higher, but most importantly, it lasts considerably longer.

Curiously, and to their detriment, despite this well proven theory, many institutes don’t practise this approach to learning. Instead students tend to cram before an exam where the information only needs to be retained for a short period of time.

Spaced learning compared to cramming delivers long-term deeper retention of knowledge and suits the workplace environment, where this knowledge is likely to be called upon in the future, and in the case of regulated firms is a legal requirement that the knowledge is maintained.

So what are businesses to do to get their staff to retain information? Putting together a structured learning plan not only disrupts employees but takes a lot of time to organise and execute. Nelly is a cloud based application that uses a combination of spaced-learning, self-testing, repetition and gamification to guarantee that what you train your employees they learn and retain, helping them to negate Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve.

Clever Nelly from Elephants don’t forget wouldn’t exist without the pioneering work of Hermann Ebbinghaus and other educational intellectuals. To read more on this you can download an abridged version of the work by Professor John Dunlosky of Kent State University, in our hugely popular White Paper – Brain Glue.
If you’re interested to find out how Elephants don’t forget can help your business, get in touch on 0845 60 60454, or email Nelly herself: