You have been there and you also, like me, rolled your eyes back into your skull when you saw some clever L&D “expert” pull up a pixelated image of the forgetting curve. Why? Apparently, it’s the only thing you should show your C-suite to justify more courses or learning events since we forget stuff over a series of hours and days. What is the forgetting curve? It’s the pioneering work of eminent German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909) on memory retention from 1880 and 1885 for time savings on relearning. In plain English, he answered questions like “How long does it take for him to forget something?” and “How much faster he learned something he had learned before?”. So, why should L&D forget the forgetting curve? Well, mostly for misappropriation of Ebbinghaus findings to vaguely substantiate the need for more learning events to keep the curve alive. However, there are other very valid reasons we should consider it less important. First, the forgetting curve totally applies to academic settings, but not so much enterprise environments because it’s all about cognitive recall. Second, Ebbinghaus experiments were one-person studies in which he was the researcher/subject memorizing non-sensical three-letter syllabus lists (Murre & Dros, 2015, p. 2). This is okay for 1880, but do we really care about such an experiment today? Third, habit acquisition laws such as Thorndike’s Law of Exercise and Effect, as well as the recently proposed Law of Recency (Giesen, Schmidt & Rothermund, 2020, para. 2) seem to be more relevant if our business is to support behavioral change.
Great for Trivia, Not for Application
One thing we can be sure of is that Ebbinghaus was playing Scrabble by himself for seven months. Yes, that sounds sadder than it reads. Remembering non-sensical strings of text has little application for workplace learning, so why get all so reverent to this seminal work of experimental psychology. Are you a psychologist? Are you designing large scale tests for academia? Do you want to be a Scrabble champion? If you answered yes to all three questions, then you should start your own Ebbinghaus fan club at work. If you answered no, then, consider supporting your learning and performance strategies with habit acquisition. “Several studies have shown that although outcomes have a strong influence on instrumental behavior, behavior that has been highly overlearned in many repetitions continues to be shown even in the absence of reward or after the outcome has lost all its reinforcing qualities”(Giesen, Schmidt & Rothermund, 2020, para. 2). Performance problems at work are often the result of poor support systems and environmental constraints. These conditions may force workers to find “work arounds” thus creating and reinforcing new habits. The problem then is, one training event will not correct bad habits that have been reinforced repeatedly over time. For example; creating job aids is not going to be enough to change bad behaviors at work. “That is, changing a habit once will typically be followed by immediate marked changes in behavior. To change it in the long run, however, will require repeated attempts in each new situation until the overall contingency has switched toward the new behavior”(Giesen, Schmidt & Rothermund, 2020).
Should we forget about the forgetting curve? For workplace learning, I say yes. Why? Because there are not too many work conditions that validate referencing the curve. Our current work environments are fluid and full of digital resources along with the Internet. The workforce of today does not need to memorize things as much as it was needed in the 19th century. However, incentivizing good habits (law of effect), repeating learning behaviors (law of exercise) and recognizing that “habitual responding results from (a) storing stimulus-response episodes in memory, and (b) retrieving these episodes when encountering the stimulus again. This leads to a reactivation of the response that was bound to the stimulus (c) even in the absence of extended practice and reinforcement” (Giesen, Schmidt & Rothermund, 2020). You can create environmental and systemic changes that support the right work habits rather than rely on irrelevant memorization studies.
Giesen, C. G., Schmidt, J. R., & Rothermund, K. (2020). The law of recency: An episodic stimulus-response retrieval account of habit acquisition. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2927. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02927/full
Murre, J. M., & Dros, J. (2015). Replication and analysis of Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve. PloS one, 10(7), e0120644.