The German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was the first to hypothesize and study (in 1885) the now-famous forgetting curve – often referred to as Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve. He noticed that at the time of learning, or taking in new information, a learner "knows" 100% of the material. However, the memory of what one learned starts to diminish immediately, and rather rapidly.2
Thankfully, it is not as bleak as it sounds. Ebbinghaus and subsequent researchers have seen that there is a way to combat the natural forgetting curve. Repetition over time and being reexposed to the same material are 2 key strategies that can combat the forgetting curve.3 Repetition of the material at spaced intervals after the learning event changes the trajectory of the curve. At each intervention or repetition, the curve becomes less steep, and the learning is more engrained.3
Ebbinghaus also discovered a concept called "overlearning." Essentially, if you practice something more than is required to learn it, the information is stored much more strongly, and the effects of the forgetting curve for this information is a much shallower slope; for example, if you have kids, the fact that you could sing "Baby Shark" in your sleep may be a product of overlearning. You were not exposed to it just once, twice, or three times – you probably have heard that song far more than was required to learn it, and I would venture to guess that if asked 10 years from now, you would still be able to recall it.
Not all forgetting curves are the same. Many factors influence the rate of forgetting. The meaningfulness of the information to the learners, how it's represented, and the learners' physiological state (stress levels, sleep pattern, hunger, etc.) impact a forgetting curve greatly. Essentially, what you are remembering and how it is presented to you matters. For instance, if you burn yourself on a wood stove, you probably do not need to touch the stove again the next time because you've forgotten that lesson. It was intense, and you don't need reminding. Ebbinghaus discussed the intensity of our emotions and our attention as the 2 factors that determine how steep the forgetting curve is, however, to ensure we stay focused on the objective of this paper, let's keep the discussion on these factors aside.4
The Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve makes a lot of sense when we look at the way our brains learn. When we learn something new, connections are created between neurons in the brain. The more you repeat this learning, the stronger these connections become, making them faster and more efficient. It is similar to walking the same path through dense woods – the first time, it's slow going; as you continue to tread the same path, the path becomes clearer and you can navigate the same path much faster. New learning literally reshapes and rewires your brain, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity.5When you ask your brain to retrieve the new information, you solidify the connections between the neurons more and more each time, and the information moves from short-term memory (working memory) to long-term memory.6
In short, you need to be exposed to the learned information a few times, and ask your brain to retrieve the information to move it from short-term memory to long term memory. Long term memory is where we need it to be so that a learner can access the learned information in the flow of work.
The DIKW Pyramid is a widely accepted model in knowledge management. The pyramid shows how Data (components), Information (processed data into something that is meaningful), and Knowledge (a skill or larger piece of information within a system) are connected to Wisdom, where we add context, judgment, and the ability to see more broadly than the other layers.
In the first cell, we can see bits of uncategorized things, which aren't very useful. They have no context, and no larger meaning (e.g., random letters). The next cell indicates adding a bit of time and context to the data, and we see that we're able to categorize the data to some extent and it becomes meaningful (e.g., words). Again, as we add context and awareness, we start to see paths and the interconnectivity of the components – and we now have knowledge (e.g., sentences, paragraphs, or a book). For your learners, this would be the ability to pass a test, indicating that they've gained the knowledge you were imparting. They understand the data, and how it fits together. Very often though, that's not good enough for our learners, and we need them to be able to be more strategic to take on the learning in a more holistic manner and do something differently than they did before. For that, we need to add insight and behavior change. In this model, the next level is insight. In this stage, our learners have that "ah-ha" moment and understand what the data should mean to them in their larger schema. They understand how what they have learned could apply more broadly to other areas or draw conclusions about the learned material that was not given to them directly.
The last cell shows behavior change. We see that insight gained is leading to the learner doing something different because of the new information. As learning professionals, this is where we are hoping all our learning leads – a new or adjusted behavior.
The way we move up the pyramid (or across the cells) is by increasing exposure to the content and adding context. We can make connections between new information more easily when we can scaffold it to existing information.
It would be remiss to not discuss cognitive load when we are thinking about learning retention. Cognitive load theory came from the understanding that working memory has limited capacity, and therefore when asking a learner to take on new information, we need to be aware of the limitations and work with them instead of against them.
We have covered a lot of the science behind learning retention. Let's discuss what we can do practically to increase learning retention. For that, let's divide this section into 2 major topics: Designing Content With Retention in Mind and Post Learning Event Retention Strategies. Note that this is not an exhaustive list.
Not all retrieval is equal. The type of learning that you are trying to encourage should help inform the type of recall you ask of learners. In a recent study, short-answer tasks (targeted retrieval) showed increased retention of directly targeted information, while free-recall tasks (holistic retrieval) helped learners remember a broader spectrum of information.13
Hence, if you want your learners to remember specific pieces of information, short-answer tasks/retrieval practice is the best. In application, it would be asking the learners to produce a particular response that your'e looking to "engrain." Mandatory tests with a high pass percentage, verbalizing key topics, completion of worksheets, and other such methodologies can be used for targeted retrieval.
If you're trying to help a learner understand a concept or how the pieces of information fit together, holistic or free-recall tasks are better. These involve asking open-ended questions and longer form recalls. Teach-backs are a good example of holistic/free-recall tasks. Asking learners to teach back what they have learned enables them to explain concepts in own words and understanding. It provides an important opportunity for the trainer to identify gaps and pain points. Interestingly, while these longer free-recall retrievals are harder, most learners tend to be more engaged and motivated to perform well on these types of retrieval tasks
Use spaced learning concepts (interval retrieval) to hack the forgetting curve.
Thinking back to the forgetting curve, each time we see a piece of information again, the curve became less steep. There has been a lot of research about the best way of putting the learned material before the learner again. How long should the time frame be between each interval? In what format should the information be repeated? There are many schedules that are prescriptive about exactly how and when the material should be put before the learner again. These schedules take into account the type of material, how many times the information has been put before the learner thus far, and whether the learner has demonstrated mastery of the content.14
By combining the principles of personalization of training with spaced retrieval, specific reinforcement of concepts can be provided to each individual learner. This helps us ensure the reinforcement stage of the training is also kept relevant and, in some ways, "unique" for each learner. Spaced retrieval can be achieved by providing bite-sized pieces of materials in the form of videos or job aids on key topics to refresh the learner's memory. Another good example is the use of gamified quizzes with a built-in feature that allows learners to "look up" the correct answer. This ensures that learners revisit the material and in the process of finding the correct answer may also feel inclined to read up any other information that they may have forgotten.
Workshops (whether face to face or virtual) can help strengthen the connection to the knowledge the learners have been given. Learning is never one-and-done. There is always more to know, and by asking learners to build off of the learning (once it is demonstrated as mastered), you are ensuring that the learning continues to be accessed and thus more deeply engrained. Workshops can facilitate peer discussion and further learning through social learning and reinforcement. They provide an opportunity to teach complex topics and build off of previous learning.
Whether through role-play or creating more in-depth AR/VR-simulated environments, allowing learners to physically practice is an important part of retention. Offer opportunities for learners to verbalize or teach back their new learnings in role-play scenarios. If the content allows, a virtual environment that the learners can manipulate and practice within can help embed learning by having the learners utilize the concepts within a safe space.15
The phrase "Learning in the flow of work", coined by Josh Bersin, is the new mantra that a majority of companies are trying to adopt.16 We often train people far in advance of the time when they actually have the opportunity to apply the knowledge they have learned. Consequently, by the time they need the knowledge, thanks to the forgetting curve, it is lost! Hence, it is vital to provide learners with topic-based, easily accessible pieces of content that cater to any questions/pain points they have while carrying out their day-to-day jobs. This ensures that the right training is available when there is an actual need for it. Providing resources that enable learners to quickly "refresh" their memories of previously learned material at the exact moment a need arises is essential to reducing the forgetting curve. Carefully curated materials such as videos, job aids, and quick tip sheets that are easily available on demand can facilitate learning in the flow of work, which can improve knowledge retention and increase productivity.
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