Fighting the Forgetting Curve – How to Make Learning Stick?

If you’re in L&D, chances are that you have heard of the forgetting curve effect. This means that people forget things over time at a diminishing rate. This tends to be a consideration for workplace L&D, as if people don’t even retain what they’re learning, it’s going to be difficult to apply it. While there are a lot of numbers being thrown around as facts (e.g. people forget 70% of what they learn in classroom training within 3 months), the reality is much more complex than that. Thus, we decided to embark on an exploration into the forgetting curve and what makes learning stick. Here are a few fact-based lessons that as an L&D professional you should be aware of.

You cannot generalise the forgetting curve

The first fact, and also an important one, is that we cannot generalise. Educational and cognitive scientists have done a considerable amount of research into the topic. While you could even argue that the methodology of these studies doesn’t really represent the nuances of workplace learning, the findings are nevertheless clear. There’s not a single formula to forgetting. Meta-research results show that the rates of forgetting in these pieces of research have been “all over the place” to put it mildly. The amount of learning retained is heavily influences by several factors, e.g. learning methods, motivation etc.

So, as a takeaway, there are no rules of thumb (such as people forget x% in y days) to the forgetting curve. Parties who claim so have generally either been very selective with their research, or are not familiar with it overall.

What kind of factors affect learning retention?

Like mentioned, learning retention is influenced by several factors. Here are a few of them that are particularly applicable to workplace learning. But don’t consider this list as an exhaustive one!

  • The type of learning materials
  • Learning methods
  • Prior knowledge and experience of the learner
  • Difficulty of assessment
  • Context of learning
  • Learning support and feedback

Interesting and engaging learning materials tend to be less “forgettable”. The more relevant the particular topic or concept, the more likely the person is to retain and learn that information. The more support and feedback the learners have, the more seamless the process of learning should turn out to be.

How to make learning stick? How to keep people from forgetting learning?

To fight the forgetting curve, we need to make learning stick. Situations and contexts vary wildly, so this is not an exact science. There’s no single right or wrong way of doing it. However, here are some guidelines on what kinf of things tend to stick based on research findings that also match what we’ve learned over the course of our own work in workplace learning.

Less sticky, more forgettable

  • Information and knowledge that has very little personal relevance
  • Abstract knowledge that is not conceptualised or related to practice

More sticky, less forgettable

  • Personally relevant information and knowledge
  • Emotionally salient material that “stands out” or evokes a reaction
  • Decision making information

Overall, we could summarise what works in single word: meaningful. For workplace learning to stick and fight the forgetting curve, it should be meaningful. Learning that resonates, is relevant and important to the people in their personal and professional contexts. Just throwing information at people without them wanting or needing it doesn’t result in very much anything (other than forgetting!).

Another key method in reducing the chances of forgetting learning is spaced learning. Research shows that long-term retention can be significantly increased with spaced repetition, where learners are exposed to the material over time, and practice and test themselves on more than just a single occasion. While organisation may often neglect the concept of spaced repetition due to the time investment in designing such, it could greatly benefit workplace learning. And with the right learning technology tools, it’s a lot easier to build such learning activities.

Final words

All in all, much of the discussion out there about the forgetting curve is false. However, people still do forget, that’s certain, and the impact may be significant. If people don’t retain knowledge, they can’t apply it and L&D loses all its value in a heartbeat. By sticking to fact-based and evidence-informed practices and models, workplace learning professional can ensure better retention. And it’s no rocket science. Meaningful learning delivered in a pedagogically meaningful format (e.g. spaced learning) can already get you quite far. After reading this piece, hopefully looking into further research about learning retention and still feeling unsure, feel free to drop us a note. We can help you build learning delivery with a big emphasis on meaningful.

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