Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve & Spaced Repetition Secrets

research and draft compiled by Sadia Mumtaz

article written by Wayne Brown

Hermann Ebbinghaus, (born January 24, 1850, Barmen, Rhenish Prussia [Germany]—died February 26, 1909, Halle, Germany). A German psychologist who pioneered in the development of experimental methods for the measurement of rote learning and memory. And is known for his discovery of the forgetting curve and the spacing effect.” [Britannica]

Rote learning is defined as the memorization of information based on repetition. The two best examples of rote learning are the alphabet and numbers. Slightly more complicated examples include multiplication tables and spelling words. At the high-school level, scientific elements and their chemical numbers must be memorized by rote.” [Resilient Educator]

The forgetting curve is a graphical representation of the forgetting process. The curve demonstrates the declining rate at which information is lost if no particular effort is made to remember it.” [Practical Psychology]

The spacing effect refers in psychology to the observed phenomenon that items that are repeated during list learning are remembered better if their two presentations are spread out over time (spaced presentation) than immediately one after the other (massed presentation). [wikia.org]

The above graphs illustrate the effects of our ability to retain the information we have learned. The left hand illustration show the dramatic drop off of knowledge retention over a short period of time after just one exposure to that information – 40% loss with-in 20 minutes and 55% with-in an hour. All the way down to 20% with-in 1 month of learning.

The second graph highlights the advantages of having repeated and spaced exposure to the same information. As you can see with each subsequent review the drop off rate is less dramatic and the retention greater.

The third graph combines the first two graphs and highlights a third component called the “Remembering Curve”

Let’s take a closer at the Forgetting Curve?…

The forgetting curve was instituted by German clinician, Hermann Ebbinghaus (thus the conventional name), in the late 1800s. It’s a recipe that speaks to the rate at which data is overlooked after it is at first learned.

Ebbinghaus wanted to understand how our recollections functioned. Ebbinghaus existed before the age when brain research educators helpfully had clumps of understudies accessible to fill in as free guineas pigs in return for course credit, so he utilized himself as a test subject: He retained hogwash syllables (“wid, zof”) and afterward tried himself intermittently to perceive the amount he recollected at various focuses in time. The arrived at the midpoint of results over various trials looked something like this:

As mentioned above, the graph is truly direct – You recall:

  • 100% of what you realize following you study it
  • 58% following 20 minutes
  • 44% following 60 minutes
  • 36% following 9 hours, etc.

As per the illustration, if you learn something in your course on the Monday, then you’ll just recall 25% of it by Saturday. However if your facilitator gets you to review or work with that information again shortly after learning it the first time then you have altered that forgetting curve and the same 6 day period later you are likely to remember around 60% of what you learnt?”

If you are able to find a way of additional spaced repetition – ideally 1 day later, 1 week later, 1 month later and again 3 months later – then the outcomes become substantially improved. In fact you would likely retain upwards of 90% thereafter. And this is how Rote Learning is applied.

The problem for corporate training…

Imagine this scenario. A lecturer at a large institution has prepared meticulously for the delivery of her subject. It is insightful and the theory is quite groundbreaking. The students enter enthusiastic and eager to understand and learn. The session goes well and both the lecturer and students feel satisfied by the end.

Now apply the rules of the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and we know that on average the majority of what was well received (up to 65%) will be lost with-in a 1 day period.

And there in lies a major challenge for Learning institutes world wide. How to address knowledge retention? If we investigate the situation in isolation – with 1 student or even a group of students attending one module, then the issue appears simple enough to address – with deliberate focus on the part of the learning institution and the lecturer, they could ensure that all of the group received repeated exposure to the knowledge. Problem solved!

Wrong as it’s not that simple. Let’s put this into context and imagine the same institute working with hundreds of different modules daily across thousands of students and you start to envisage the challenge. It becomes almost impossible to apply the post session follow-up care required.

Reason of Forgetting

For what reason do we overlook 80 percent of what we learned inside a month? In fact, the reason starts with what we have spoken about in other blogs related to the R.A.S. – the Reticular Activating System. This small area of neurons clumped together at the base of the brain stem are responsible for filtering the majority of the inputs into your conscious mind.

As a side note here – a neat trick you can use to bypass the R.A.S. defense system is to introduce smell to the students. Smell goes directly to our brain’s emotional center, hence you can alter the students mindset and change their focus with the momentary use of some chemical substance. Just make sure its safe and doesn’t trigger the detectors.

Now if you are observant you might notice that there are things which seem to always pass straight through. These things are literally hard wired in your brain and so our “learning utopia” is to find the perfect storm. A way to ensure that the information we facilitators are sharing is making past that first quality gate and having the opportunity of becoming stored.

But it goes further than just storage, we want to ensure that it is also able to be recalled when needed. The brain has a tendency to grade the information it is storing based on the frequency of it’s usage. Therefore if we have managed to internalize this knowledge but the mind deems there isn’t a likely need for it in the future, it gets either deleted or stored way back in the vault in the area where the cobwebs and darkness prevail. The remedy to this of course is to use the new knowledge as soon and often as possible immediately after learning it.

We’ll discuss my own secret formula shortly on ways to enable both elements, but first let’s look at some external influences which we need to consider for our students.

Factors affecting our ability to remember…

There are a number of variables that influence our capacity to recollect what we have learned. Here are some examples however be aware that this is not intended to be an exhaustive list and other items could also play a role:

Lifestyle impact: There is a great neuro-science article published in the NeuroLeadership Journal, Issue #4, written by David Rock, Daniel Siegel, Steven Poelmans and Jessica Payne…. called the Healthy Mind Platter. It lists seven lifestyle habits – sleep time, physical time, connecting time, focus time, play time, down time and time in. Each impacting our ability to perform at our peak and therefore in the case of learning, impacting the minds ability to absorb.

Singular contrasts. Some people seem to be just better at recollecting than others – don’t sweat it and just accept that you may not be one of those people and most likely if your the facilitator most of your students aren’t either.

Prior or associated information. Having earlier related information will influence our capacity to learn and later recollect. For instance, we ask two students learning Spanish to memorize a series of new Spanish words. And one of those students is a local Italian speaker and the other is a local Mandarin speaker. All other matters are deemed equal. It will most likely be a lot simpler for the Italian speaker to recollect the list due to the similarity of the dialects.

Significant others. Somebody important to the student, explains their reason for wanting the student to learn something as it is likely that the student will need to use that knowledge in the future. The student is much more likely to focus and retain their learning more successfully.

Redundancy. How frequently is the student presented to this new data? Only a single time or a few times, divided over a time of days or weeks?

Recovery. Is the student required to recover and utilize this information occasionally?

Primacy/Recency Effect. The Primacy/Recency effect was additionally identified by Ebbinghaus. He contemplated the position of content in the presentation, and found that in general we recall the first and last things the most. Neuroscience has proved this impact and found a potential reason in the overall quality of electrical stimulation of the cerebrum when our thinking is first excited (supremacy) and when the mind is effectively occupied with coding data in momentary memory (recency).

As learning experts, we should know about these effects and create explicit techniques to give extra learning support to the material in the center, where the mind isn’t as dynamic, and making it harder for students to retain and recollect.

Wayne’s magic facilitator formula…

With this realization learning bodies try desperately to introduce ways of embedding that knowledge, to make it stick and there are a number of things which can be done and are effective. It starts with the session preparation – by including the third party in this equation – the boss, the parent or whoever it is that has determined the need for the student to be attending that module.

Note here, if it was the student attends because they are wanting to learn something themselves, this creates an entirely different dynamic and should be at the root of all company thinking – How to create the learning culture where people want to learn and grow?

So here is my own facilitator’s secret formula laid out for you – twenty actions listed point by point, and it incorporates numerous theories – each theory holding a piece of the puzzle. Together they create a powerful consistent result.

  1. Brief the third parties about the objectives of the module and then have them speak with the student about the reasons for attending and their expectations.
  2. Always introduce reading or some related activity as pre-work, prior to the first session – video, questionnaire, e Learning, case studies, etc.
  3. Prepare the material and the sessions so that they address multiple learning styles – a minimum is VAK – visual, audio, kinesthetic.
  4. Pay attention to the environment – seating arrangement, smell, atmosphere with lighting and music. Try to create some mystic or attention grabber.
  5. Use a count down timer to the beginning of the session to get people focused, ready and expectation.
  6. Open with a story – and use stories repeatedly during the sessions as we connect best this way.
  7. Close on the heals of the story is the use of topic specific case studies.
  8. Make each of your props special – pointers, timers, chimes, wall charts, flip charts, PPT, handouts, workbooks, videos, podcasts, music – the list is endless. I like to incorporate the use of smell as mentioned earlier.
  9. Break each session into three parts – the open, the body and the close. Each part plays a function.
  10. Ensure the session is structured, linking between topics and chunking topics into short duration – Pikes 90-20-10(8) principle is a personal favorite.
  11. Include an activity with each topic – theory followed by a short reinforcement activity.
  12. Look to review the key take-away from each topic, in different ways, but a minimum of 6 times across the entire module. Completing a quiz, group work, Q&A, activities, discussions, artwork, movement, summarizing and so forth.
  13. Be sure to tell the students if something is important to remember – and then pause and watch the effect this has?
  14. Make sure you are the consummate professional facilitator and use all of your skills to engage and entertain.
  15. Encourage note taking – with a pen and paper. Hand, eye, brain coordination is a great way of embedding something important.
  16. As a part of your closing ask for the commitment – 2-3 specific actions which the student can write down and articulate aloud in front of the entire group.
  17. Close on a high with a call to action. Make the close special and something to remember – awards, acknowledgements, next module promo – be creative.
  18. Do you have a take-away – i.e. some form of memory jogger that is tied to the lessons and will spark a memory?
  19. Provide some form of follow-up activity for students – post session quiz, refresher videos, webinar, coaching calls etc.
  20. Very important – ensure that the third party is involved after the session – to ask about the student’s learning and how they are planning to utilize that learning.

Additional references…

Ebbinghaus made numerous revelations, including the Ebbinghaus dream and mental aides. You can buy his book on memory on Amazon called Memory – A contribution to experimental psychology. Published in 1913 this makes it one of the longest-running works constantly in print, up there with the Bible and Shakespeare. This event though Ebbinghaus doesn’t get full recognition for his historic work. His commitments despite everything stand and have impacted most of us.

Some Links

Category: Learning 4 Execs

This is the second article in this series and an important addition to this series as it is foundational in our understanding of how our brains are designed to forget rather than remember.


Until next time, stay safe and healthy. Bye for now. Wayne

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