The Forgetting Curve

May 4, 2023

If it wasn’t for the ‘forgetting curve’, you’d remember everything you’ve ever been taught. You’d be a genius on a level that would make Einstein envious. 

This makes the forgetting curve the arch-nemesis of learning and development (L&D) departments across the globe. But wouldn’t life be boring if everything was that easy?

In fact, we even argue that we are lucky to know about the forgetting curve. After all, it tells us important information about our memory and knowledge retention – key ingredients for successful learning.

Understanding how the curve works can help you take action and prevent yourself from forgetting new skills or information. But what exactly is it, and how does it work? Our article runs you through the memory model, its history and ways to combat the curve!

Are you ready? Let’s go!

What Is the Forgetting Curve?

The forgetting curve is a memory model created by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus. In fact, you might also see the model referred to as Ebbinhaus’s Forgetting Curve.

In a nutshell, the memory curve shows how we lose information over time if we don’t try to retain it. As such, it helps us to tackle the common challenges of forgetting information without adequate retention.

Ebbinghaus’s Epiphany: Where Did the Model Come From?

In the late 19th century, from 1880 to 1885 to be more specific, German psychologist Ebbinghaus tested his memory over various periods of time. 

He did so by conducting various tests on himself to examine his hypothesis. Ebbinghaus’s tests focused on him memorising meaningless three-letter words, like ‘DOK’ and ‘EHD’ (CVCs or Consonant–Vowel–Consonant). 

He then tested how well he could retain that information after different time periods. Once he’d gathered all the data from his spaced learning studies, he plotted it on a graph that looked a little something like this:

Forgetting Curve

Now, contrary to appearances, Ebbinghaus didn’t invent a fun slide. He’d actually discovered the nature of memory loss over time.

The graph illustrates that when you first learn something, the information disappears at an exponential rate without retention. In other words, you lose most of your newly acquired knowledge in the first couple of days, after which the rate of loss tapers off.

In fact, according to the curve, you forget:

  • 50% of all new information within a day.
  • 90% of all new information within a week.

Once he had discovered the exponential decline of memory, Ebbinghaus could identify the factors that contribute to it. Let’s take a look at the different factors!

What Impacts the Decline of Memory?

Based on his research, Ebbinghaus concluded that the level of retention depends on a few different factors.

1. Strength and Relevance

Perhaps unsurprisingly, individuals can recall stronger memories for longer periods than weaker ones. In turn, the relevance of the information has an impact on how strong the memory is.

For example, if you are listening to a presentation on a topic you have no interest in or struggle to understand, you are more likely to forget it faster than information that is relevant, engaging or interesting.

As such, we remember less and less of our weaker, non-relevant memories as the days go by if we don’t try to retain the information. This is because our brain makes room for new memories.

2. Time

In a learning context, the forgetting curve shows that learners will forget an average of 90% of new information within the first seven days.

As such, without retention, we remember less and less information as the hours and days go by. The biggest drop in retention happens soon after learning, which is reflected by the steep fall at the start of the curve.

If your training program has not had the impact you hoped for, now you know why!

3. Presentation

The way information is presented can affect learning and how well we store information. As such, you can make the same piece of knowledge more or less memorable by changing how you communicate it.

Typically, learners find it easier to remember information that has been organized logically and presented clearly. After all, your brain can focus on the content of the message rather than trying to decode it!

4. Feelings

Our feelings also affect how well we remember information. In fact, Ebbinghaus suggested that physiological factors, like sleep and stress, influence how well we retain information.

This is typically because these negative physiological states impact our focus and attention. As a result, we struggle to learn efficiently. Similarly, sleep itself, for example, has an important role in the consolidation of memory.

This is in line with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It categorizes and prioritizes human needs within a five-tier model, often presented as a pyramid. 

Our basic needs, like physiological needs and safety, are at the bottom. We need to satisfy these lower-level needs before moving on to more complex needs.

Why Does Memory Matter?

Simple! Without memory, we could not learn anything at all.

Memory plays a fundamental role in life and learning. After all, it is the only way we can reflect on the past. This, in turn, helps us to operate in the present and think about the future.

This makes memory essential for our survival. We typically store information that helps us avoid physical or psychological harm.

For example, we are good at remembering foods we should avoid to not get an allergic reaction or pathways or areas we should stick to in a more dangerous neighborhood.

With this in mind, it’s essential to combat the forgetting curve to ensure you remember and store new information. But how can you do so? Let’s take a look.

How to Combat the Forgetting Curve?

It all sounds pretty scary and daunting, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s clear that Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve presents a challenge for learning and development professionals. After all, your aim is to create an effective training program your learners will love and remember.

After all, if your learners forget important information before they’ve had a chance to apply it, you won’t see any change in their behavior or any impact on your business.

Luckily, now that you understand how memory works, you can do something about it. There are various tactics that you can use to overcome the forgetting curve and make sure you won’t lose your precious learning efforts.

Here are some of our favorite ways to leverage spaced repetition to improve recall in your training initiatives!

1. Reinforce Regularly

Ebbinghaus discovered that reviewing new information at key points on the curve can help you to reduce the rate at which you typically forget. As such, every time you reinforce your training, the rate of decline reduces.

In fact, simply testing your memory will help it to become stronger. This, in turn, indicates that staging frequent training interventions as part of your learning campaign can help you to solidify new information through active recall.

As the biggest drop happens just hours after learning new information, it’s always a good idea to reinforce training materials within the next few days of the first session.

The more your learners have studied the topic or are familiar with it, the longer gaps you can leave between reinforcement sessions. Take this into account when planning your training structure.

Similarly, Ebbinghaus discovered that information is easier to recall when it’s built upon things you already know. After all, it helps you to understand the context and relevancy more effectively.

As such, try to use as many real-world examples and contexts as possible. This will help you to build upon your learner’s previous knowledge. This will not only help them to remember the topic better but to comprehend how it can be beneficial in different situations.

2. Improve Clarity

As explored previously, presentation matters as it influences how much energy our brains need to devote to understanding the message itself.

With this in mind, you should strive to make information easier to absorb in the first place.

Rather than writing everything down in lengthy text formats, present information in diagrams or graphics where possible. Similarly, you could create videos or use relevant imagery to help explain new concepts or terms.

The clearer the information, the better your learners’ brains can focus on remembering all relevant details.

3. Keep Things Relevant

We tend to remember information that has a personal meaning to us, whereas we lose weak and non-relevant memories in just a few hours. 

As such, when it comes to your corporate training initiatives, make sure your content is relevant and has a personal meaning to each learner.

An off-the-shelf learning resource won’t have the same impact as a custom-made one. As such, in every piece of training you produce, keep the core purpose of your organization and training initiative at the forefront.

At Growth Engineering, we call this Epic Meaning. Epic Meaning helps you to create a sense of purpose. This, in turn, makes your training more relevant and helps learners to identify the benefits.

And the more driven your learners are, the more likely they are to impact your organization’s performance positively. After all, employee training promotes behaviors that your organization needs to thrive.

4. Increase Interactivity

People learn better when they’re actively involved than when they’re passive observers. If you don’t give your learners an opportunity to interact with the content, they’ll soon drift off and lose concentration.

There are various ways to increase interactivity and make learning more engaging. At Growth Engineering, we are gamification lovers and experts.

Adding game elements to your training program is an excellent way to engage your learners for longer by making training more fun. Similarly, gamification keeps your learners involved and promotes healthy competition.

The more active role makes the whole training process more relevant to your learners. Similarly, making learning more fun ensures your audience has the hunger to keep learning.

5. Make Training Accessible

If you want your training content to stick, you need to make it accessible and convenient for your learners. After all, providing spaced and frequent repetition is difficult if you only provide one training session per month.

As such, learners should have the ability to complete training wherever they are and whenever they need. This is possible with today’s innovative learning technology.

Mobile learning means that your learners have a much better chance of recollecting their knowledge. Similarly, they can refresh their knowledge autonomously at the point of need.

And did you know that mobile learning is a perfect match for microlearning? Microlearning means that learning content is broken down into easy-to-consume, bite-sized chunks.

Together, these approaches supercharge accessibility, which, in turn, helps you to create a more effective spaced learning experience for your learners.

Final Words

There you have it! Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve in all of its glory.

It’s true that not all memories follow the curve. After all, there are various factors that influence how strong our memories are.

Even still, the forgetting curve enables you to identify the best approaches for spaced repetition. This, in turn, helps you to ensure that your learners remember what they learn.

In a nutshell, make sure to reinforce your training regularly, create clear and meaningful learning experiences and make sure your training content is interactive. These tips alone will get you off to an excellent start!

Source: Growth Engineering, “What is the Forgetting Curve and How Can You Combat It?” Learning & Development Blog. 27 February 2023.