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Learning Decay: From Ebbinghaus to Employee Learning in Today’s Workplace

By Michael Macnaughton on September 20, 2016

Learning_Decay_-_From_Ebbinghaus_to_Employee_Learning_in_Todays_Workplace-1.jpgWhen Hermann Ebbinghaus developed his theory about the learning decay curve back in the late 1800s, he probably didn’t expect that it would still be used more than one hundred years later. Scientific advances often replace old theories with new ones, but in the case of how the human brain processes and retains new information, not much has changed. We still forget most of what we have learned within about a week after learning it.

The Ebbinghaus learning decay curve is an important factor when it comes to employee learning. Just because the context is the workplace and not the classroom does not mean that individuals are able to retain more information than they would in an educational setting. You simply can’t expect people to remember most of what they read, hear, or experience -- unless you have a retention strategy in place.

Overcoming the Forgetting Curve with Boost Learning

Learning decay is a reality that you must deal with if you want to get the most out of employee learning. Fortunately, science didn’t stop with Ebbinghaus. Dr. Henry Roediger has recently performed research demonstrating that when a learner is required to recall information in the hours and days after a training session, it increases their ability to remember it for longer.   

Roediger’s experiments use tools like booster quizzes to compare how much information learners retain after a certain period of time. His research, in addition to dozens more studies performed by other scientists, prove that giving learners the opportunity to boost their recall will result in more knowledge being retained for longer periods of time.

Applying Boost Learning to Employee Learning

Organizational training is an investment, so naturally you want to get the most possible benefit from it. If you pay for a corporate training event and do no follow-up at all, you can assume that about 70% of the information will be forgotten after a week. That translates to 70% of your investment in the training. If that number is not acceptable, consider implementing a retention strategy that includes boost learning.

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Some of the ways you can provide boost learning after an employee learning event include:

  • Multiple choice tests
  • Polls
  • Fill-in-the blank questions
  • Questions about how the knowledge is applied in the workplace
  • Asking individuals to provide examples

These types of boosters can be done in person with line managers or digitally through an automated system. If you are concerned that these tasks will become deprioritized over time, consider an automated system to ensure that they occur. To maximize retention, use boost learning events after a few days, a few weeks, and then a few months after the original training.  

Using Reinforcement and Measurement

Another way to help overcome the learning decay curve is through the use of reinforcement and measurement. The main objective of employee learning is to improve competency and get noticeable results in the workplace. This requires the application of new knowledge and skills. The act of applying knowledge is a retention method in itself, but getting individuals to do this is not always simple.

You can get sustained results from organizational training by using reinforcement and measurement tactics such as:

  • Peer-led and leader-led group discussions
  • Gathering feedback
  • Performing knowledge assessments
  • Providing ongoing coaching
  • Adding gamification to keep learners engaged
  • Using digital tools to monitor and measure performance

The key is to start with a high-quality training event, then follow up with boost learning that starts almost immediately after training. A comprehensive reinforcement and measurement strategy will then encourage individuals to apply their new knowledge to produce the results that will help you achieve your organizational goals.

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Michael’s singular focus is rooted in staying connected to learners the moment they step out of the classroom and back into their busy jobs. As SVP of Learning Performance, Michael brings business savvy depth to ensuring learning is reinforced, applied and is optimally aligned to delivering on strategic objectives. His proven track record in creating measurement frameworks and reinforcement solutions that add value to the learner, leaders and executive sponsors is highly valued across the spectrum of our client engagements.

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Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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