Understanding The Forgetting Curve and How to Neutralize It Blog Feature
Dan Fisher

By: Dan Fisher on October 12th, 2021

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Understanding The Forgetting Curve and How to Neutralize It

sales enablement | talent management

"I've explained this to him a hundred times. Why do I have to continue to repeat myself?"

"I remember we covered that in training but I don't recall the specifics."

Sound familiar?  We’ve all had these kinds of experiences. The information is on the tip of your tongue, or the edge of your memory, but nearly impossible to recall, even though you heard or saw it just the other day. Or, you know you’ve read about a subject, but you just can’t remember the specific details.

You aren’t alone. Humans forget approximately 50 percent of new information they encounter within an hour and an average of 70 percent within 24 hours, cognitive science expert Art Kohn notes. After a week, he says, that average goes up to 90 percent.

This pattern is referred to as the Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, or simply 'the forgetting curve.'  The forgetting curve demonstrates how information is lost over time when humans don’t try to retain it. If it wasn’t for the forgetting curve, your employees could simply take a training course once (or watch a top performer once) and it would stick forever. If only it were that easy! 

As you will soon discover, understanding the forgetting curve and how to neutralize it is key to the success of any sales and recruiter enablement program.  To begin, let's take a quick look at the video below to understand the history of the forgetting curve and Hermann Ebbinghaus's ground breaking research on memory loss.

Once he’d gathered all the data from his studies, he plotted the results on a graph that looked a little something like this:


The graph illustrates that when humans learn something new, the retention of that information disappears exponentially, i.e. you lose most of it in the first couple of days, after which the rate of memory loss tapers off.

After discovering the exponential decline of memory, Ebbinghaus identified the factors contributing to it. He discovered that the level of retention depends on three things:

  1. Strength of Memory: People simply recall stronger memories than weaker memories. For training, learning and development professionals, this means our training content must be highly relevant to the learner and highly engaging.
  2. Time Elapsed:  This refers to the amount of time that has elapsed since the material or knowledge was acquired. In the context of employee training, the forgetting curve shows that learners will forget an average of 90% of what they have learned within the first month.  If you were wondering why your employees are not adopting your training, now you know why.  They're not tuning you out, they've simply forgotten.
  3. Spaced Reinforcement Neutralizes The Forgetting Curve: Ebbinghaus discovered that information is easier to recall when it’s built upon things already known. In the context of employee training, each time you re-introduce or reinforce your training, the rate of memory decline reduces. The testing effect is the finding that long-term memory is often increased when some of the learning period is devoted to retrieving the to-be-remembered information. The effect is also sometimes referred to as retrieval practice.  Staging frequent spaced reinforcement training as part of a learning campaign helps solidify the information through active recall.

Three Ways to Neutralize the Forgetting Curve

  1. Microlearning: Microlearning is a learner-centric approach that provides just-in-time training that is made available on multiple devices such as computers, tablets and smartphones and is delivered and consumed in small-bite size piece. By "bite-size," I'm talking about short videos to the tune of two to three minutes in duration or self-paced e-learning, games, podcasts, infographics, and other visuals that only take a few minutes to consume.  Microlearning is appealing to learners because it empowers them by giving them a higher level of control in defining their learning path. Microlearning allows for the learning to be personalized and flexible, two ingredients all learners, especially millennial's, covet. Microlearning is agile and used to create “sticky” learning experiences that aid in overcoming the forgetting curve. To learn more about microlearning, check out our blog, eight benefits to microlearning.
  2. Spaced Reinforcement: Perhaps the the most important discovery Ebbinghaus made was that, by reviewing new information at key intervals (over time on the Forgetting Curve), you can reduce the rate at which information is forgotten.  This approach is often referred to as "spaced learning" or "spaced reinforcement."   You can provide learners with fun, easy, gamified exercises for them to absorb and retain what they learned on an ongoing basis so they consistently apply it in their daily work routine. Adaptive, automated spaced reinforcement gives L&D and enablement leaders a way to reinforce a body of knowledge or skills in small bite-size pieces over time without overloading their learners. For example, the Menemsha Group sales enablement platform makes use of technology that utilizes AI and Machine Learning and other advanced technologies to push automated, daily reinforcement exercises to each learner's mobile device using spaced repetition — a method of spacing learning over time for maximum retention.
  3. Deliver Your Training in Multiple Formats/Modulations:  Using a variety of methods to deliver information is key to driving retention and overcoming the forgetting curve.  You see this approach in education with different approaches being applied including visual, auditory, and hands- on experiential learning. In the world of training, learning and development, we must take a similar approach by delivering our content in a variety of formats from blogs to videos and podcasts, to infographics slide presentations and experiential learning exercises.
When considering your next onboarding or training initiative, help your learners overcome the Forgetting Curve by applying these three tips and your training will become more memorable as a result.  

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About Dan Fisher

I’m Dan Fisher, founder of Menemsha Group. Over 400 IT staffing firms including thousands of sales reps and recruiters apply my sales methodology including my scripts, playbooks, job aids, tools and templates, all of which is consumed from our SaaS based sales enablement platform and our mobile application. I’ve coached and mentored hundreds of sales leaders, business owners and CEO’s, and I have spoken at a variety of industry events including Staffing World, Bullhorn Engage, TechServe Alliance, Bullhorn Live, Massachusetts Staffing Association, and National Association of Personnel Services. Since 2008 I've helped IT staffing organizations quickly ramp up new hires, slash the time it takes to get new reps to open new accounts and meet quota, get more high-quality meetings with key decision makers and help leaders build a scalable sales organization. My training and coaching programs are engaging and highly interactive and are known to challenge sellers to rethink how they approach selling. Ultimately, I help sellers increase productivity, accelerate the buying process & win more deals.

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