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Jo Cook

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Is it about time we forget Ebbinghaus?


The importance of Ebbinghaus

Most Learning and Development professionals know of Hermann Ebbinghaus and the Forgetting Curve that his research developed in the late 1800’s. From a workplace performance perspective, we need to ensure that whatever skills or knowledge that need to be learnt to impact behaviour, gets remembered and can then be applied back at work.

Ebbinghaus researched learning on his own: remembering, and forgetting, nonsense words. Steve Wheeler summarises what Ebbinghaus discovered: “That over time, if learning is rehearsed and repeated at regular intervals, we actually forget less.”

Donald Clark evangelises the importance of the findings from the German Psychologist: “The most ignored piece of theory in the psychology of learning is the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve – we forget most of what people suppose we learn – fact.”

Is it time to move on from this 1885 research though?

Will Thalheimer states that “measuring forgetting is first and foremost a complex and inexact enterprise—one that certainly does NOT lend itself to the algebraic certainty deployed in dubious statements like, ‘People forget 40% of what they learn within 20 minutes of learning it’.” This is often what is shown from the Ebbinghaus research. The way I interpret this research is that, in the first instance, it was very specific to himself and on a very specific set of memory tests; this leads me to question the validity of applying this to all learning! Thalheimer also comments that if we hear people using those statements we should “proclaim in a loud, resonant voice, ‘Hey you, pied piper of misinformation, stop telling lies! Stop undermining learning! Stop hurting learners! Stop tainting our field with an aura of quackery! If you’d ever actually looked at the research you would know that forgetting depends on many things’.”

'Affective Context Model'

With this in mind I was attracted to the work of Nick Shackleton-Jones after he commented on one of Donald Clark’s blogs about the forgetting curve. He stated in his own blog about the Affective Context Model: “most ‘push’ learning remains ineffective, and retention of information follows Ebbinghaus’s familiar ‘forgetting curve’. This is because learning is usually presented to the learner at a time when the importance of it is not clear or imminent to the learner – it is ‘just in case’ rather than ‘just in time’ learning.” Certainly this is what a lot of training does, in my experience, as it’s not always immediately applicable to the workplace. Shackleton-Jones goes on to explain his concept of a different model of learning: “In practice, this means that organisational learning would do better to focus more on the affective context – the reasons why the target audience might care – than the informational content itself, especially in a world where information is freely available.”

The Affective Context Model, from my understanding, also does work with some of the output from the Ebbinghaus research, as highlighted by Steve Wheeler in his writing about learning psychologists: “What is even more effective is when the content is applied in authentic contexts, and where learners have the chance to rehearse and strengthen their recall.” This means making sure that people learn in a situation that is relevant to them and similar to their working context – that could mean in their place of work or similar to it, appropriately designed simulations or perhaps observing them in their workplace.

Staying with the importance of Ebbinghaus to us now, Donald Clark states that “the trick is to look beyond the course and learning experience to the reinforcement of that knowledge and skills. To truly move learning from working [memory] to long-term memory we need to reinforce to increase retention and recall.”

Forgetting is a personal thing

In Thalheimer’s paper he examined 14 research articles on learning and remembering, looking at 69 separate cases of forgetting, representing over 1,000 individual learners. One of his findings is that “people in the reviewed experiments forgot from 0% to 94% of what they had learned. The bottom line is that forgetting varies widely.”

Key for me is understanding from Thalheimer that this can be addressed. He states: “Learning gurus are wrong when they say that training is not effective”. This is music to my ears, as I do read a lot about training, of all varieties, being a hindrance to learners and a cost with no return to organisations. Thalheimer stated that “learning interventions can produce profound improvements in long-term remembering.”

This is a summary from Thalheimer highlights how to achieve this: “Aligning the Learning and Performance Contexts” as I mentioned above. “Provide Retrieval Practice”, where the focus is getting the information from memory in a way that is similar to how people do their jobs. Finally, “Provide Spaced Repetitions” repeating and practicing over time. For more ideas and practical details, Donald Clark also has a blog on this topic.

Will I forget Ebbinghaus?

No, because I keep revisiting the topic, therefore retrieving and reinforcing information I have. I also use it in context and, as I’ve examined here, I can see the relevance of using the lessons from his, and other, research on memory to inform the design and development of my training practise. 

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Jo Cook


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