Tackling the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve in Corporate Training

Sarah Flesher

What do you recall about the last eLearning module you completed? If you're like most of us, not much. Since it's not reasonable to expect our learners to do better, what's the point of this type of training? This article will look at ways to tackle the forgetting curve and make learning last.

Tackling the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve in Corporate Training

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus began a series of experiments on memory. He found that memory loss, in the sense of forgetting what has been learned, is exponential. Without reinforcement, people forget most of what they have learned very quickly, although the rate of forgetting slows over time. That's not particularly encouraging when you consider that the rate of forgetfulness only slows once there's not much left that's remembered.

The prevalence of the one-and-done training model in corporate training makes Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve particularly relevant. Often, corporate learners attend a seminar or workshop or complete an eLearning module, review the material, pass a test and then they're done. Your carefully crafted, high quality training slips quickly into oblivion as employees return to daily life. This is a standard form of training, even though we've known for well over one hundred years that it doesn't work.

It's well past time for a look at how we can do things better.

Tips for Tackling the Forgetting Curve

1. Use spaced practice instead of one-and-done learning events

Spaced practice is a strategy with many names -- distributed practice, spaced rehearsal, spaced repetition, and spaced retrieval, among others. Despite the embarrassment of appellations, the concept is simple. After learners have completed the initial learning event, require them to return to and review the learning content several times over the following weeks and months.

A key factor in getting the most out of spaced practice is selecting the most effective times for review. The first review should occur as soon as a significant portion of the content has been forgotten -- often the day after the original learning event. The gap between the future reviews is then gradually increased. If gaps are too long and learners have forgotten all or most of the material, the next learning event will not enhance memory because the learners will have to start from the beginning.

2. Provide opportunities to apply learnings immediately

The opportunity to apply newly learned knowledge is a powerful method of review. Whenever possible, learners should be given a chance to use what they have learned immediately after learning it. But what about when it isn't possible?

Scenarios are one way to fill the gap. For example, if customer service employees have been taught a new way of managing disappointed customers, there's no guarantee they'll encounter a customer with an appropriate problem for the new technique the next day. Instead, consider having the learners engage in role playing exercises with their coworkers. Role-play provides an opportunity to work through the technique without waiting until it's been forgotten.

Branching scenarios are also useful. While they're slightly less effective because the learner doesn't come up with options on their own, they do offer a chance to think through a new process.

Another option is to approach the issue from the other side. Instead of creating opportunities for application, create learning that's meant to be accessed as needed. Informal learning materials like job aids, curated help material, a company Wiki can be used by learners at the point of need, which means skills will be applied immediately.

3. Make the memory stronger

Another way to change the shape of the forgetting curve is to make the memory stronger to begin with. Ways to do this include:

  • Tying new knowledge to existing knowledge to help with schema formation and the movement of the knowledge from short-term memory to long-term memory
  • Emphasize the benefits or consequences of the knowledge to the learner to enhance its significance or meaning

4. Utilize microlearning in your learning strategy

Microlearning, or learning broken into small, bite-sized chunks, works well with other strategies for tackling the forgetting curve. Microlearning segments are easy to access at the point of need, allowing immediate application. Additionally, learners are more willing to return to small learning segments than long courses or modules the next time they're needed, so they lend themselves to spaced practice.

5. Create a learning campaign

Learning campaigns are more than just a series of learning events. They use "elements from marketing, communications, and behavioral psychology to make learning experiences more effective at driving behavior change." Campaigns can include:

  • Branding and themes
  • A marketing message promoting the learning material's purpose and value to the learner
  • Gamification, game-based learning and competitions
  • Multiple learning events to reinforce the material, including eLearning modules, microlearning, seminars, and workshops

Continuous, repeated exposure to the learning content and related themes combat the forgetting curve by establishing new knowledge in learners' minds.


This article has reviewed several ways to tackle the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and enhance the impact of corporate training. We've looked at space practice, providing opportunities for immediate application of learning, ways to strengthen the initial memory, the role of microlearning, and learning campaigns.

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Sarah Flesher

Sarah, our President, graduated from Concordia University in Montreal with a BA and an MA in Public Policy and Public Administration and completed her doctorate in Educational Technology. Sarah brings over 15 years of operational and management experience to her role as President at Base Corp. She works collaboratively with organizations to develop strategic learning plans, determine training requirements. When she doesn't have her nose in a book you can find her at the gym, on the ice, on the ski hill, drinking wine or in a coffee shop … with her nose in a book.