Employee Learning: Turn the Forgetting Curve into Retention

Do you remember the Forgetting Curve? You’ll be forgiven if the details of this mathematical curve have slipped your mind, but its continued importance in today’s learning and training environments cannot be overstated.

As a quick refresher, the Forgetting Curve was popularized by a 19th-century German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus, who discovered that humans forget newly memorized information at an alarming rate. He illustrated this phenomenon with a rapidly downward-sloping curve to show how quickly memory loss occurs:

  • Within twenty minutes, 42 percent of what was just learned is already forgotten.
  • In twenty-four hours, 67 percent is gone.
  • One month later, 79 percent is lost.

Skeptical? Try it for yourself. Reread those three statistics and see how many you can recall 20 minutes from now. Chances are, you’ll remember two. By tomorrow, you’ll probably know one of the three.

Unfortunately, that’s how our brains work when new information is provided in a passive manner, such as reading, without significant efforts to review and retain it. Memorization simply doesn’t work for long-term retention.  

Impact of the forgetting curve on L&D departments

What Ebbinghaus discovered years ago continues to plague learning and development organizations today. Even though over $140 billion was spent on corporate L&D last year, training outcomes still fell short of expectations. Why?

Consider the fact that 42 percent of training was conducted in an instructor-led classroom in 2017. With a likely time gap of more than 24 hours between employee learning and on-the-job usage, only about 33 percent of training made its way to the workplace.

That’s a lot of wasted time, money, and effort. What can be done to address this situation and avoid the dreaded Forgetting Curve? How can corporations improve learning effectiveness and boost knowledge retention?

Close the gap

Rather than wait even 20 minutes between learning a new skill and using it, give employees the ability to learn within the context of their jobs and immediately apply new knowledge. Josh Bersin has trademarked this new paradigm as “Learning in the Flow of Work®.” There’s a multitude of ways to do this, but microlearning is proving to be the most impactful for long-term retention.

Microlearning involves short bursts of learning that are easy to consume and focus on a single skill, topic, or problem. The information ranges in length from about three to ten minutes and usually includes interactive elements like videos or flashcards. By its very nature, microlearning is designed around the learner to reinforce how he or she learns best and is often delivered on-the-job with mobile devices.

Because microlearning is “active learning,” it’s associated with 90 percent knowledge retention and 50 percent more engagement with learning materials. That’s quite a jump from 33 percent retention in instructor-led classrooms. Microlearning also matches employee preference, as 58% want to learn at their own pace and 49% want to learn in the flow of work.

Ebbinghaus would have agreed: he believed that practicing something—rather than memorizing it—helps us achieve a state of “overlearning,” which leads to better knowledge retention and lowers the likelihood of being forgotten.

Forget Me Not

Imagine how powerful learning can be when employees have mobile devices at hand, and the information needed to perform job duties, learn a new skill, or answer customer questions is always at their fingertips. Rather than struggling to remember something that was taught days, weeks, or even months ago, employees can simply do a quick search to find the right information when it’s needed.

Best of all, this mobile-enabled employee scenario brings together learning and doing in the workplace to foster “Learning in the Flow of Work®.” Coupling these actions not only elevates the overall employee experience but also improves engagement, development, and retention. Think of it as shifting from a state of learning management to an enhanced state of performance enablement.  

It’s important to understand the pitfalls of passive learning and memorization in order to produce the results you crave from your employee onboarding and training. Isn’t it time to modernize your learning experience and leave Ebbinghaus’s curve forgotten in the past?

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