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Learning & Development Blog

To Improve Learning Retention Focus On Forgetting

To Improve Learning Retention, Focus on the Dynamics of Forgetting

When we talk about learning, the concept of learning retention is almost always an integral part of the discussion. For example, we frequently talk about how and when to present information to optimize retention. In fact, retention is almost synonymous with learning. And, no discussion about retention can be complete without also discussing its opposite: forgetting.

Until recently, I had never actually thought about the forgetting part of learning. Then I came across an excellent Slideshare presentation from Charles Jennings. (This presentation, by the way, would be an excellent primer for anyone in a corporate learning department looking to introduce the concept of informal learning to their colleagues).

In the presentation, Jennings refers to the Ebbinghaus “forgetting curve,” which illustrates how newly acquired information initially evaporates at an alarming rate, until the percentage of retained information eventually levels off at a discouragingly low level. This concept was named for its German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who worked extensively in the fields of learning and memory.

ebbinghaus forgetting curve

I must admit to being a little puzzled by all the incarnations of the Ebbinghaus curve, though. I doubt Hermann created this many manifestations of his clever curve.

So, how to overcome the forgetfulness problem? Donald Clark provides some good insight. He explains how practice is the real key to retention:

The real solution, to this massive problem of forgetfulness, is spaced practice, little and often, the regular rehearsal and practice of the knowledge/skill over a period of time to elaborate and allow deep processing to fix long-term memories. If we get this right, increases on the productivity of learning can be enormous. We are not talking small increase in knowledge and retention but increases of 200-700%.

In addition to the obvious repetition that practice provides, the other key element practice provides is context. In order to practice something, it needs context: a real-world scenario, or a problem to be solved.

To facilitate this kind of learning, we frequently encourage our clients to reduce the amount of seat time they allocate to eLearning and classroom training. In its place, we recommend that they create practice scenarios and problems, then provide well-structured information repositories where learners can find the resources they need to work through the exercises.

So, instructional designers and learning professionals who strive to improve retention could do well to remember the dynamics of forgetting, by including plenty of practice and exercises in the learning experiences they create.

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