The Myth of the Forgetting Curve

Forget what you know about forgetting 

What were you doing September 11, 2001 when you heard about the attack on the Twin Towers? Do you remember where you were, what you were wearing and who you were with? What are some other details you can fill in about that day? If you can remember thing so clearly, why is it that we are so prone to casually accept the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve as gospel when we know some things are unforgettable?

Over 130 years ago, Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted an experiment on himself that is accorded as received wisdom among instructional designers. It posits that following a training event, learners immediately begin forgetting at an exponential rate until they remember virtually nothing of the training only a few days (or hours) later.

So how do we account for the fact that some events stick in our minds with uncanny clarity while others fade as quickly as blown light bulb? Most of you remember precisely where you were and what you were doing on 9/11, but you probably have no idea what you were doing on 9/10 or 9/12. Ebbinghaus would say that your retention of 9/11 events is related to the “strength of the learning.” This would make sense if the events surrounding 9/11 were learning events, but they were not. So why do they stick?

The difference between forgetting 9/10 and remembering 9/11 was the intense emotional and personal interest you had in the events of 9/11. They had a strong emotional impact that touched you in a deeply personal way. Incorporating these two elements into coursework is what separates training that is forgotten from that which sticks.

Tap into what you know about remembering 

There are a variety of ways good instructional designers leverage your brain’s natural impulses to create memorable training through emotional impact and personal interest. Some of them are: 

  • WIIFM – “What’s In It For Me?” is the starting point of every successful training implementation. Once we identify the audience and desired training outcome, the key to making sure the training sticks is to clearly communicate how the training outcome will be personally valuable to the learner. I guarantee that a training outcome that promises “enhanced shareholder value” is not going to be recalled the next day. However, training that makes life easier or more productive for staff will get their attention. 
  • Stories – Facts sound good. So do statistics. And graphs and charts. But what genuinely motivates learners are the stories. They can be success stories, horror stories, funny stories, or serious stories, but they must possess an essential ingredient: they relate the training to a personal experience. Without this personal touch, the training will fall flat. 
  • Heart – Training that touches only the head will fail. Training that touches the heart will persist. Remember that our goal is not to simply educate, but also to inspire and bring about consistent long-term behavior change because employees believe in the course. 

At C4G, we incorporate these elements into the training we develop. Yes, we will deliver a training product that will impart skills to your staff, but more importantly, we embed those skills in a message that reinforces the overall business purpose you want to achieve. Call us today to discuss how we can make your training stick.

Bryan Brush