Ebbinghaus forgetting curve

While the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is based on a mathematical formula in the 1800s, the theory illustrates how our brains retain information and still remains relevant today. In this article, we explore the science behind the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, how it can be put into practice through modern training, and highlight the best examples in Learning Management Systems (LMS).

Ebbinghaus Experiment

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German pioneer of psychology, is perhaps best known for his 1885 publication which would later become known as Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology which first described the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.

Through his findings on memory, Ebbinghaus transformed learning theory in 1885 when he produced the curve (fig. 1), dictating the rate at which our memory declines. Although many have found exceptions in the ability of learners to retain recently absorbed knowledge, the psychologist’s theory still holds up in how we remember and forget material today.

In fact, our pioneering and award-winning microlearning platform, EdApp, draws from Ebbinghaus’ theory, paired with the highly-regarded Supermemo SM-2 interval algorithm, for our spaced repetition feature: Brain Boost. If you’re unfamiliar with spaced repetition, it is a highly effective method of learning which automatically delivers learning content at increasing intervals until knowledge is fully embedded in long-term memory. 

To activate the Brain Boost feature within EdApp, simply navigate to your chosen course and select ‘Brain Boost’ from the menu of options (below).

Brain Boost

From there, simply switch the toggle:

Enable Brain Boost

Hermann Ebbinghaus

Ebbinghaus focused his research on the experimental study of memory and is known to have researched and established the forgetting curve and the spaced repetition effect. Ebbinghaus is also applauded as the first person to describe the learning curve, which helped shape EdApp’s Brain Boost feature to reinforce key concepts and ultimately and promote better learning results.

Hermann Ebbinghaus

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.

Fig. 1. Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve

The forgetting curve is a mathematical formula that was discovered by Herman Ebbinghaus in the 19
th 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’.

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 principle behind it is that increasingly-less information is retained after each attempt of revising – a key principle to why cramming for exams is inefficient.

According to psychologists, 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.

Brain Boost – EdApp

EdApp utilizes spaced repetition in its microlessons to counteract the effect of the Forgetting Curve. The implementation of spaced repetition means that learners’ retention of new knowledge is significantly increased and embedded into long-term memory. This, in turn, means that concepts are better understood and gives learners the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned again and again. 


The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve formula

When plotted on a graph it looks like this…

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve Figure

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve Formula

source: Gwern

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 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.

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.

Ebbinghaus forgetting curve factors

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.

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.

Individual capability

People’s strengths and weaknesses are prevalent in different areas, meaning remembering information comes easy to some more than others.

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.

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.

Frequency of retrieval

The frequency of information retrieval is heavily determinant of the percentage of knowledge which will be stored in long-term memory.

Ebbinghaus 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.

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.

Want to know more about how to implement spaced repetition into your employee training strategy? Get in touch at enquiries@edapp.com. You can also use EdApp’s completely free, award-winning LMS to train an unlimited amount of users by clicking here.