What is the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve?
The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is considered a significant indication of how the brain processes information. It has been referenced by various scholars in the analysis of intervals within which information must be consolidated to be retained. However, the question still stands; Is the Forgetting Curve a myth?
Hermann Ebbinghaus transformed learning theory in 1885 when he produced the curve (fig. 1), dictating the rate at which our memory declines. However, many have found exceptions in the ability of learners to retain recently absorbed knowledge.
Fig. 1. Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve
Although Ebbinghaus’ findings have been proven valid, there are myriad factors that impact individual’s ability to remember new information.
But, what is a forgetting curve?
The forgetting curve is a mathematical formula that was discovered by Herman Ebbinghaus in the 19th century. The formula describes the rate at which information is forgotten after it is learned. This phenomenon of learning and forgetting is familiar to those who try to learn something a night before their exams.
The Herman study showed that the forgetting curve was initially very steep, and the knowledge retained drops dramatically. But the memory eventually levelled off and he was able to remember a few things for many days later.
The study also showed that the drastic drop in remembering can be curtailed if the information is repeated at pre-determined intervals. This is the basis of the learning method that is better known as ‘spaced repetition’.
Spaced repetition involves repeating and reviewing the information, which in turn, increases the strength of memory. The technique is not merely about repetitions. For instance, repeating a new fact 20 times in an hour will not overcome the forgetting curve. But recalling the information at intervals will help since the brain needs to reconstruct the memory, just as everyday exercises help strengthen muscles.
1. Prior knowledge
Having knowledge previously stored in the memory facilitates an advantage to the learner, allowing for a more seamless learning process when new knowledge is presented.
2. Degree of importance
The importance of the knowledge must be communicated to learners, as the more detrimental they think the information is to their job, the more they will revise, remember and recall course content.
3. Individual capability
People’s strengths and weaknesses are prevalent in different areas, meaning remembering information comes easy to some more than others.
4. General awareness
Being aware of surroundings and having an adequate understanding of general knowledge further enhances the memorisation ability of learners. This is due to them being able to ‘fit in’ the newly learnt material into previous situations or relate it to familiar commodity.
5. The effect of repetition
The extent to which the learner retains new information is dependent on how often the material is revised or presented to the learner in an educational climate.
6. Frequency of retrieval
The frequency of information retrieval is heavily determinant of the percentage of knowledge which will be stored in long-term memory.
What does it have to do with spaced repetition?
Spaced repetition is a core concept of microlearning magic and directly uses the findings of the forgetting curve as its basis. It diminishes our brains’ ‘use it or lose it’ policy, in which the average brain can withhold between 3-5 new pieces of information at any given time.
EdApp utilises spaced repetition in its microlessons to counteract the effect of the Forgetting Curve. Using spaced repetition, learners’ retention of new knowledge is significantly increased, resulting in information storing itself in long-term memory. After information builds up in our long-term memories, material joins together in the form of large chunks to create a holistic concept.
From our findings amongst extensive studies conducted by psychologists and scientists, it is safe to say that NO, the Forgetting Curve is not a myth.
The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is an exponential relationship between memory retention and time. When plotted on a graph it shows that the retention of new knowledge will halve in a matter of days or weeks if no effort is made to embed it. More importantly, it shows that if a conscious effort is made to retain the knowledge, by revisiting it periodically, the likelihood of it embedding in long-term memory is dramatically improved. The proactive practice of such revision would become known as spaced repetition.
Ebbinghaus forgetting curve experiment
The spaced repetition methodology has roots that date back to ancient times. However, arguably the key influencer of the modern interpretation of it is Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who pioneered investigations into memory. He is best known for his 1885 publication which would later became known as Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology which first described the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.
What does the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve look like?
The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is based upon the observations that the sharpest decline in retention occurs within the first twenty minutes and is significant within the first hour. The curve then levels off after a day. An important principal behind it is that increasingly-less information is retained after each attempt of revising – a key principle to why cramming for exams is inefficient.
His methodology is described in thus, “Ebbinghaus would memorize a list of items until perfect recall and then would not access the list until he could no longer recall any of its items. He then would relearn the list and compare the new learning curve to the learning curve of his previous memorization of the list. The second list was generally memorized faster.”
Forgetting curve formula
When plotted on a graph it looks like this…
The periodic repeating of learning would become known as spaced repetition (also known as distributed practice) and, in recent times, has been enhanced to create an optimised spaced repetition schedule. The addition of computer software to the schedule has meant that this methodology has become even more effective because the computer remembers which answers you got right and so doesn’t waste time and effort repeating related questions.
The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve and spaced repetition are now core principals in the learning toolbox and, in recent times, are being increasingly embraced in institutional and corporate training alike.
Learning always had an evolutionary purpose among species: adaptation. Species that learned to adapt to their environment survived, those that didn’t were wiped out.
That is the reason why our brains can retain important information. For instance, it does not take too much effort to remember that the neighbor’s dog is hostile, but it takes a lot more effort to remember the dog’s name. One is about safety, the other is a random fact.
Today, humans seek to learn things beyond the scope of survival; we use evolutionary, adaptive memory to remember languages, complex theories, obscure words and much more.
This can be achieved if one “convinces” the brain that the information or the skill to be acquired is important, which would help overcome the ‘forgetting curve’.
Forgetting Curve & Corporate Training
In the corporate world, this poses a huge problem for the training department. This is because nearly 50% of new information is ‘forgotten’ within the first hour, while 70% is lost within 24 hours of the completion of the training.
This is where microlearning and spaced repetition go together. Microlearning is an ideal solution since the content that is provided is bite-sized that can be easily digested and recalled.
The required information can be presented as mini-games, videos, or infographics along with 10-12 quizzes for the learner. These 2 to 5-minute microlearning modules can be accessed anywhere and anytime by learners at the time of their need.
For example, medical reps who have received training on a new drug can access the microlearning lessons about the product when they are waiting in the clinic to meet the doctor.
Our brains have limited capacity to remember only the information we use and discard anything that we don’t use. Hence, the work-around for this is to learn and recall the same information in different ways at different times.
Apart from this, microlearning has the advantage of being quick and convenient for modern learners who have short attention spans and multiple levels of distractions.
Here are some tips to remember while using the spaced repetition technique:
Context of the Learning
Merely defining a concept will not do unless the context of the application of the content is explained in detail. If a new concept is being taught to the learner, provide an example of its real-time application in the context of your own job/ task. In case it is a familiar concept, introduce an example of application in a different job/task. Explain the concept in your own words.
Review it Once a Day
Just as cramming all workout sessions in a day and not exercising after that fails to build muscles, memory too can be built only over consistent effort over time. Therefore, review the content to refresh memory once a day. Ensure your brain has enough rest between the repetitions.
Choosing a powerful tool to help employees to remember the information by overcoming the ‘forgetting curve’ will not only save time but reduce the average corporate spend on re-training their staff.