Learning and development? Don’t forget the forgetting curve

Blog / News | 15-08-23

Memory is one of the most crucial functions of the brain. It allows us to store and remember information. Unfortunately, our memory is not perfect: we often forget things we’ve learned in the past. This is due to the forgetting curve, a natural process that our brain uses to make room for urgent matters and prevent overload. In most cases, it’s not a big deal, as you don’t need to know everything at all times. However, there are situations where it’s crucial to have knowledge readily available. Think of time-critical tasks in the workplace where mistakes can have severe consequences. For these situations, we need to ensure that we overcome the forgetting curve. In this blog, we explain how to achieve this.

Sustaining behavioral change requires maintenance

The forgetting curve is a scientifically proven concept discovered by the German psychologist Ebbinghaus in 1880. It means that newly acquired knowledge fades rapidly if not applied or maintained. A familiar example of the forgetting curve is studying for an exam. If you cram the night before, you can probably get a perfect score. But a week later, you’ve probably forgotten most of the information because it was in your short-term memory and not anchored in your long-term memory.

In the workplace, this is undesirable. Ultimately, you want to train employees for long-lasting behavioral change, such as working more safely or hygienically. Especially for critical tasks, it’s (literally) vital that this knowledge and skills are well-retained and top of mind when needed. However, this requires maintenance, practice, application, making mistakes, and receiving feedback. To achieve long-lasting behavioral change, we must fight the forgetting curve.

A diploma is not a guarantee of knowledge

The forgetting curve is also the reason why diplomas don’t necessarily reflect someone’s level of knowledge and competence. And this is a fact that often goes overlooked. Organizations still place a lot of value on specific diplomas or certificates. Even when they were earned years ago, and do not assure the immediate accessibility of that knowledge. In certain sectors, such as healthcare, authorities require periodic maintenance. For example, through annual or five-year recertification. This is done through in-person training, e-learning, and/or reading books or protocols. Nevertheless, the forgetting curve still affects individuals in these professions since they often don’t need to apply certain knowledge or skills frequently in their work. However, when the need for application arises, it is usually time-critical. Consequently, it becomes crucial to keep knowledge and skills readily accessible.

The power of repetition

How do you fight the forgetting curve? By cutting learning materials up and repeating them regularly. The effort to keep knowledge up to date is smaller when you learn regularly at short intervals compared to cramming for a mandatory exam every few years. By regularly brushing up on small amounts of information at regular intervals, you’re asking someone to recall information that has partially faded. This requires them to actively retrieve it from their brain before the forgetting curve erases all the knowledge. This process of frequently recalling information from memory results in a stronger and longer-lasting learning effect. In this way, you use the forgetting curve to your advantage to ultimately remember more.

Defeat the forgetting curve

Maximizing the benefits of the forgetting curve is crucial for effectively addressing it. However, the extent to which individuals retain knowledge and how long they retain it can vary from person to person. Therefore, adopting adaptive learning strategies is smart. This means tailoring learning moments to every individual specific needs. For instance, someone who has just started a job will have different knowledge and skill levels compared to someone who has been working for ten years. You should adapt learning moments accordingly. Ideally, these learning opportunities should be available online and accessible from any location. This flexibility allows employees to learn at their convenience, wherever they are.

In short, by regularly revisiting necessary knowledge and addressing individual learning needs, you ensure the transition of information from short-term to long-term memory. This way, you give the forgetting curve no chance.