Tackling the Forgetting Curve

How to make learning stickier, so your team can actually use it!
by Kara Doak — December 30th, 2021

You’ve spent the day at a leadership conference learning all sorts of great things: How to coach your team, how to build engagement, how to run effective meetings. You go back to work the next day with good intentions — but quickly lapse into your old habits.

Within a few weeks, you try to recall what you learned, but even with your notes, you have a hard time. What on earth happened? If he were still alive, 19th-century psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus would have the answer: You just experienced the forgetting curve.

We’ve known for 126 years that the human brain doesn’t retain a lot in terms of memory, and the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve shows just how rapidly new information is lost if we don’t have the opportunity to put it into practice quickly. But HR Technologist found that just 12% of professionals use their newfound skills right away.

This means taking people out of work and putting them through a formal, structured class (where they might even be tested with the accompanying assumption they know what to do if they pass) then putting them back in the workplace doesn’t actually influence the performance.

Being expected to retain large volumes of information all in one go is like trying to drink from a firehouse — sure, a little gets in your mouth, but the majority splashes all over the place without being consumed.


Fortunately though, there are tactics to make knowledge “stickier”

1. Give workers access to bite-sized learning 

It’s common to bombard employees with large amounts of information. But most people, especially your high-performers, are time-poor and constantly pulled in competing directions. 

The way around time constraints is to give workers access to quick information that can be ingested in small bursts. For instance, a self-directed program of 15-minute modules allows employees to tap into knowledge at their point of need. So rather than spending a week learning about agile management, they get a distilled understanding of the principle that they can apply immediately.

Microlearning is also an effective way to improve uptake and engagement. It’s been found that 85 percent of all educational content is either forgotten or rendered useless within six weeks of learning it, which indicates that traditional training might not be the most effective way for people to learn. Pandora is one example of a company that turned to microlearning for its workforce, and  saw training completion rates go from 15 percent to 90 percent. Busy people who might not be able to commit fully to an all-day event can usually find small nuggets of time to devote to a little education.


2. Encourage managers to follow-up after training to help reinforce learnings 

Having team members share how they’ve applied what they learned is one of the most effective ways to overcome the forgetting curve and to ensure behavior change (which is usually the goal of training) is happening. These informal interactions can be brief; think of them more as a huddle than a formal check-in, as discussing what has been learned in conversation can help make knowledge stick.

This is especially important after bringing new employees into the fold. Onboarding typically involves a large volume of information: “Here’s our tech system. Here’s how we do stuff.” Once onboarding is over, employees frequently experience the forgetting curve. Meeting with their team leaders to go over digestible chunks of the material they learned while onboarding helps with retention. 


3. Stack new knowledge on top of prior knowledge

Another way to bypass the effects of the forgetting curve is by building learning experiences. For example, an employee would need to be able to demonstrate and apply specific behaviors before learning something else. This type of information “stacking” creates a strong foundation and avoids learning loss. Over time, the lower levels of the “stack” become more and more ingrained.

Be careful, though; not all knowledge “belongs” on top of other knowledge. Learning has to make sense for your employee. Take the idea of a public speaking course for a performer who doesn’t have a speaking engagement planned. The material may seem unnecessary, making it more likely to be forgotten before it can be applied.

To ensure that you’re stacking knowledge efficiently, request feedback from your team members. You can always fix something that’s not working.


4. Create training opportunities that are easily accessible and device agnostic

People in need of information don’t always want to read about the topic. Many people are visual or auditory learners. Or, they want to interact kinesthetically with curricula, if possible. Be certain that you’re offering training that meets people when they want information and how they want to receive that information.

Similarly, be sure that all content is accessible on any device. From laptops and tablets to smartphones and desktops, all sorts of devices are used for learning purposes. The more user-centric your learning content is, the more it will become a reliable resource.

You may even want to calculate which types of devices or learning styles are being used most often by your team. Maybe the majority of employees seem to tune into podcast-style micro-content on their smartphones, in which case you might like to add more audio formats to your learning toolkit.


5. Go for a blended learning approach that still includes formal learning 

Formal learning has a place in corporate training, as long as it’s equally as engaging and effective as other types of education. It also needs to be interspersed with other types of learning, such as microlearning, feedback loops, and self-directed learning.

When designing your learning processes, go for a blended approach with multiple touch points. Don’t just have a lecture-style marathon. Instead, add a post-workshop task and follow-up sessions to round out the learning and reinforce the transfer of knowledge.

The forgetting curve may be a proven phenomenon, but there are certainly ways to overcome it! Just put a few measures in place and you’ll have far less forgetting — and far more employees eager to show off their mettle.


Recommended Blinks:

Unlimited Memory 10 Days to Faster Reading Use Your Memory


At the time of publication, Kara Doak was the Senior Director of Blinkist for Business.

Interested in overcoming the forgetting curve?

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