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Overcoming the forgetting curve in training courses

L&D specialists constantly search for ways to create courses that are relevant, engaging and that can prove a positive ROI for the business. Teaching methods change, learning environments become increasingly immersive yet one thing stays constantly the same – people forget a lot of what they are taught.

Research shows that learners will have forgotten 75% of the information a day after it was presented and most of that occurs within the first hour. Since time seems to have shrunk, instructional designers do their best to concentrate all the relevant knowledge into small morsels. However, if the bare essential is presented and only a quarter of it has a chance of being remembered and applied, there is not much to be said for the success of corporate learning programs.

The forgetting curve

Back in 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus decided to test his own memory by trying to remember series of random syllables. What he discovered and later developed into a whole theory is that there is a forgetting curve that sees a colossal drop from 100% to under 50% within a few days. Following this initial purge of information, the curve continues to drop over time but at a slower rate. Finally, it reaches a plateau where it stops.

The main factors that influence the forgetting curve are how strong a certain memory was (the level of impact it had on the brain) and the time that has passed from the initial moment to the one when the individual is trying to remember something.

Factors that influence forgetting learned material

When it comes to adult learning, many times there is the premise that they are aware of how important it is to get new information and as a result they will gladly retain any relevant material. While the assumption itself is not entirely (or at all) valid, even when the learner begins with the best intentions, a lot of what is taught will still be lost.

The main factors that have a bearing on this are:

  • The complexity of the module — the more complicated it is, the more likely it is for it to be forgotten;
  • How meaningful the information seems to the participant — if it solves a problem they have, if it is linked to concepts that are already familiar;
  • The teaching method — interactivity and media content helps get attention and engagement;
  • Psychological and physiological aspects — stress or lack of sleep can be really detrimental.

We don’t forget randomly

Forgetting is natural but the good news is that it is not also random. If the brain perceives a certain piece of knowledge as being highly relevant, it will store it for later use. Dr. Roediger’s research has demonstrated that when you convince a learner to recall information the first few hours after the learning intervention takes place, they are very likely to remember it for a long period of time.

In a series of experiments he has found that if people are given the opportunity to repeat and recall the material immediately after they have first covered it and in the days following it dramatically improves its retention in the long run.

It’s a question of usefulness

Our brain is designed to retain only the information it deems important. It’s actually healthy that it performs this way, keeping the items that are useful and getting rid of those that are not.

This purging function can actually turn out to be useful to learning specialists who, by creating instances in which knowledge that has recently been taught is necessary to learners, convince the brain to label it as necessary and as a result keep it instead of discarding it.

Scheduling booster events such as quizzes or multiple choice questionnaires right after the material has been covered can reset the forgetting curve. Using them as part of an ongoing strategy will surely maximize long-term information retention.

Spaced repetition is the cure

Today’s digitization of learning offers a wide array of clever fixes for our dwindling memory. Since learning is no longer a one-time event bound by the confines of time and place, setting-up boosters that will find each individual at his convenient time is very easy.

Furthermore, since what Ebbinghouse also discovered was that spaced repetition is the key to remembering, having cleverly timed modules for learners to enroll in and go through important material at certain intervals will lead to them actually remembering all that is useful to them. This will generate better results and overall personal and professional development.

It’s best to make at least some of the modules in the form of practice units rather than simple presentations since the brain is wired to keep only what is deemed relevant for use.

Read more: The role of an LMS in applying spaced repetition

AR and VR to the rescue

One of the most important factors by which the brain decides if something gets stored or tossed is how strong the memory is. And whatever is deemed ‘personal experience’ tends to be labeled as highly relevant and stick with us for a long time.

This is why designing as much of corporate learning as possible in AR or VR environments can have a tremendous impact on the ROI of training. Experiential learning has the greatest potential for bringing desirable, long-lasting behavioral changes.

The fact that these environments also offer a high degree of interactivity helps the learner get a better understanding, stay focused and ultimately remembering and being able to extract the right take-aways from the experience.

Read more: 4 Benefits of using VR in training

Closing thoughts

There is no magical solution for people to remember absolutely everything, not would that be a desirable thing to achieve. Yet since corporate training is mainly focused on providing essential information and developing relevant skills, it needs to look into what it takes to overcome the (otherwise very natural) forgetting curve and work on delivering memorable modules.

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