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Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve

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Executive Summary: Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve reveals the importance of retaining knowledge over time. Recognizing the impact of the Forgetting Curve on learning emphasizes its importance for employee performance. Utilizing microlearning as a solution aligns with our natural learning patterns and helps counteract the forgetting curve’s impact. By embracing short, focused learning sessions, we empower individuals to overcome forgetting, improve knowledge retention, and foster ongoing professional growth.

Picture this: your employees attend a training session. They’re armed with trusty notepads and pens, ready to absorb all the knowledge being thrown their way. They diligently take notes, nodding along with enthusiasm. However, as time elapses, precious information begins to fade from their memory. Eventually, they’ve forgotten everything they learnt.

Enter Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve: a curve so steep it makes roller coasters jealous. Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve illustrates how our memory tends to decline over time if we don’t reinforce what we’ve learned. In other words, it’s like trying to hold water in your hands – it slips away unless you find ways to keep it contained.

Memory plays a vital role in employee performance and productivity. A sharp memory is essential for success in today’s fast-paced work environment. It aids in many daily tasks, such as remembering complex procedures and protocols, retaining product knowledge, or even recalling critical data during meetings.

So, how does Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve help us understand memory and retention? And, how do these affect employee performance? Read on to find out!

📣 Message for the reader

People forget nearly 90% of what they have learnt within just 7 days, unless the concepts are reinforced. That’s why employees swamped with documents, presentations, and classroom sessions are not likely to learn much.

However, time constraints make it difficult to reinforce vast concepts.

What can you do instead? Arm your employees with one concept at a time. Studies show the human attention span is only 8.25 seconds, so keep your training concise.

RapL is your software for that.

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Ebbinghaus and the Forgetting Curve

It’s a rainy evening in Halle, Germany. The year is 1885. A curious, cloaked figure dashes across the street, his monocle catching the light from the gas lamps. He enters the university building and walks into an office. The brass nameplate reads, “Doctor Ebbinghaus – Department of Psychology”. Ebbinghaus sets his papers on the desk, and eases into an armchair. By now, he has spent five years uncovering the mysteries of human memory. From memorizing random syllables to plotting graphs based on his retention of them, Ebbinghaus has explored it all. Now, he is eager to publish his findings in what will be known as a cornerstone in psychology, and will greatly influence learning. Ebbinghaus ignites the oil lamp on his desk to take a final look at his work, “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology”.

There’s no doubt that Ebbinghaus’ findings are just as interesting as the title of his paper. His studies led to the development of the Forgetting Curve. Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve illustrates how memory retention declines over time. It shows that we tend to forget information rapidly at first, followed by a more gradual decline in forgetting rate.

Within an hour, we forget around 50% of new information learnt. After a day, we forget about 70%. Within 3 days, retention drops to approximately 20%.

Ebbinghaus had a simple way of testing memory. He conducted a bunch of tests on himself. Ebbinghaus came up with a series of three-letter words (or, as he called them, “nonsense syllables”) like “wid,” “zof,” and “qax.” He tried to memorize these word lists and tested how long he could remember them after different time intervals. The graph he made with his results is now called Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve.

What Ebbinghaus found was interesting. The forgetting curve isn’t a straight line – it’s more like a steep drop at the beginning. We forget a lot of what we learn pretty quickly after we learn it. Most forgetting happens within the first hour of learning something. So, we eventually forget most of what we studied in a course. A week later, it’s like we never learned it.

What exactly does this mean in the context of training? Well, a closer look at the figures shows that people forget over 80% of what they have learnt after just 3 days – unless the knowledge is reinforced. That means that just one long training session isn’t enough to make an impact: your employees need repeated revisions of training material that is both relevant and engaging.

If you’re wondering, “What do you mean by relevant and engaging?”, allow us to quote Ebbinghaus himself: “Very great is the dependence of retention and reproduction upon the intensity of the attention and interest which were attached to the mental states the first time they were present.”

Even we can’t understand why people in the Victorian era loved complex sentences. So, we’ll explain this in simple words: how much we remember and apply depends on our motivation and attention towards what we learn. When employees are authentically involved and curious about their learning, their heightened focus and emotional connection stimulate better memory formation and application of knowledge. In fact, numerous studies have reported that emotions have a significant impact on human cognitive processes. This includes attention, learning and memory, reasoning, and problem-solving (Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N. M., & Malik, A. S., 2017).

In essence, Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve highlights hurdles in the way of knowledge retention and application. Long seminars or lectures simply don’t make an impact, and employees forget most of what they’ve learned within just a week. Eventually, they return to old ways of doing things, and performance remains stagnant. That’s because employees can’t upskill or grow if they can’t remember what’s being taught.

How does memory impact employee performance and productivity?

Ah, memory: the cognitive superpower that lets us store and retrieve information from the depths of our past experiences. It’s like having a mental library filled with all the knowledge we’ve gathered throughout our lives. From short-term memory, which acts as a temporary pit-stop for information, to long-term memory, which stores it for the long haul, our memory systems are essential components of human cognition. They are also the foundation for knowledge retention.

Knowledge retention plays a significant role in enhancing employee performance. Like a trusty GPS, it can guide employees through the labyrinth of tasks at work. When employees can recall and apply relevant knowledge, they are better equipped to make informed decisions, solve problems efficiently, and contribute to the overall success of the organization.

On the other hand, forgetfulness can have a serious negative impact on employee performance. When employees draw a blank on crucial info, the result is a maze of errors and mistakes. Mistakes lead to decreased efficiency and reduced productivity. Endlessly reviewing information and rectifying errors wastes precious time. It slows down workflows and disrupts focus. The wasted time could be better utilized for more productive tasks.

Now, let’s talk teamwork: Forgetfulness can also create a domino effect on team collaboration. If one team member forgets vital information, it can cause delays and confusion within the team. This affects the overall productivity of the entire team.

This shows that designing training strategies to maximize knowledge retention is essential for optimized employee performance. By prioritizing the retention of valuable insights, organizations empower their workforce to navigate tasks with confidence, make informed choices, and contribute positively. Avoiding the pitfalls of forgetfulness ensures streamlined workflows, enhanced productivity, and harmonious team dynamics. Ultimately, this propels the organization toward success.

Strategies to overcome the effects of the Forgetting Curve

  • Bite-sized learning to make retention easier: Say goodbye to bulky manuals, and hello to a flexible and convenient learning experience. Microlearning uses bite-sized training content to help employees tackle complex concepts one at a time. The short modules also make reviews easier, especially when delivered on a mobile application. Employees can easily access the training material whenever and wherever they want, making repeated reviews much more convenient for them. This flexibility makes training less scary, which boosts motivation and engagement.
  • Spaced repetition to reinforce concepts and boost retention: Spaced repetition can help us beat Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve easily. The concept behind spaced repetition is simple, yet effective. Instead of having your employees cram information all at once (which we already know doesn’t work), spread out their review sessions over time. This allows them to revisit the material at optimal intervals, maximizing their ability to retain it. By strategically spacing out review sessions, you can reinforce concepts that employees have learned, and ensure that it sticks in their long-term memory.
  • Visual, interactive elements to boost motivation/engagement: By using visual training elements, you can easily combat the Forgetting Curve and captivate your employees’ attention. No more dull slides filled with endless bullet points – it’s time to bring your content to life! Use infographics, short videos, colorful one-page PDFs, etc. to make training fun for employees. Take this up a notch with interactive elements. Imagine having polls or quizzes embedded within your program. This not only keeps employees engaged, but also reinforces key concepts as they actively interact with the training material.
  • Scenario-based learning to strengthen application skills: By immersing employees in real-life situations and having them actively apply knowledge, you can easily beat Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. With scenario-based learning, employees dive headfirst into practical problems that mimic real-world challenges. This approach not only engages their minds, but also taps into their natural problem-solving abilities. They get the chance to apply newly-acquired skills immediately after learning them. Scenario-based learning ensures that knowledge is embedded deep in their minds through active participation and hands-on practice.

To sum up, Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve details how we tend to forget things over time. It highlights the importance of knowledge reinforcement to boost retention. Microlearning is an ideal approach to fight the effects of Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. RapL is a leading provider of microlearning solutions. RapL helps businesses grow by providing tailored microlearning solutions for diverse industries. By delivering bite-sized, industry-specific content, RapL empowers employees to upskill efficiently. This approach fosters continuous learning, resulting in increased expertise, streamlined processes, and ultimately, substantial business growth across various sectors. To know more about how we can help you create an engaging and effective training program, contact us at

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Dear reader, thanks for being with us all the way till the end. We suggest 2 things from here

1. Speak to us if you want a microlearning strategy deep-dive: Microlearning is extremely effective, if approached sensibly. Microlearning is the answer to today’s shortening attention spans and we know how to make learning successful via microlearning. Drop your context here and we shall partner with you for the rest.

2. Lap up more content: We have written some intense literature on how microlearning is the superglue between people and successful business operations. Access all of it here.

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