Forget About the Learning Curve, Learn About the Forgetting Curve

The Learning Curve

It is (or should be) well understood in the training business that trying a new technique will result in an initial drop in performance. Coaches often need to encourage learners to continue using the new technique until they get up the learning curve. In other words, keep chugging and eventually your performance will exceed your previous levels. The learning curve can be unpleasant. At the least, it is a necessary evil. Nobody enjoys the learning curve but it is a reality for anyone trying something new.

The implication though, is that once you make the trip up the learning curve, you stay at the top — that once you know something, you know it permanently. But practically speaking, we know better…we know that it is really more “use it or lose it.” Researchers who have studied learning retention can confirm that the shelf life of new learning isn’t very long. As far back as 1885, a German psychologist named Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted research on memory. His focus was strictly recall—he had subjects learn lists of nonsense syllables and then tracked how well they could recall them. He would work with subjects until they learned the list and then retest them periodically. He also measured how long it took for people to relearn what they had forgotten. Ebbinghaus’ research identified things we take for granted today, such as the “primacy and recency effects” (which just means you often remember the first and last things in a list and forget the ones in the middle). His research led him to believe that there is no such thing as permanent memory—everything can be forgotten if not used. Below is a diagram showing an approximate “forgetting curve.” It isn’t pretty if you are a professional trainer, or a business manager.

The forgetting curve helps explain

  • Why people pass tests in a training class but are not able to execute the performance on the job. (This assumes the training wasn’t off-the-mark or that the local practice differs.) 
  • Why spending lots of effort refining lectures and presentations is a game of diminishing returns. As a rule, people aren’t going to remember something you said for very long.

If you think about this from the standpoint of a learner, this should be obvious. Think about the last meeting or presentation you attended. Can you remember even one slide? Yet, you know that presenter thought carefully about each bullet and graphic on every slide. But, did they spend enough time thinking about how to get you to internalize their message?

For results, we need to focus on the desired performance, how to develop it effectively, and how to measure that you have actually achieved it.

Importance of Repetition

Most of the researchers focus on strategies for improving recall. Though the specifics vary, in general they all involve repetition (or review). There are different formulae for how frequently and for how long the repetition needs to happen but they all agree on the need for it.

Unfortunately, repetition is a hard sell in the business training world. For one thing, it requires time. For another, it seems like something people should be held responsible for “doing on their own” rather than using training time, which could instead be used for learning new information.

Maybe the biggest problem with relying on repetition is that it doesn’t feel like a strategy to use with adults. It feels demeaning—sort of a “brute force” approach to learning. Learning “by rote” has a negative connotation.

In fact, repetition may be the right strategy in some cases, such as salespeople learning product features. But before you take the plunge, it is important to be certain that straight recall of facts or information is really the desired performance. Often information that is conveyed through lecture or presentation could really have been distilled into a tool (e.g., reference document) which would negate the need for the high effort, high cost work of memorization.

Importance of Reinforcement on The Job

The forgetting curve should also make us think twice about investing in training without at least considering the post-training environment. Beyond recall, is transfer. Transfer is using the new learning in the job setting.

There are a number of factors that impact how well transfer happens but immediate use and reinforcement are key. In the learning model shown below, you should be spending the majority of your energy on the boxes outlined in blue.

This is why it is important that trainers do not create content in a vacuum—we need master performers to ensure that we teach what the learners will be doing on the job. Still, there are times where all field settings are not using the “best practice.” Embedding best practices in process information, tools (e.g., software), metrics, etc. helps build a stronger web of reinforcement, which increases the likelihood that performers will do the work the way you trained them to.

The Best Solutions are Always Systems

Ultimately, all performance solutions reside in an environment of training, information, process, coaching, tools, incentives, and culture. It is always more effective to address more than a single element. The iPod is a great innovation…but without digital music (and the iTunes online store) it wouldn’t have been successful. In the same way, great training won’t make any difference without the rest of the performance environment. To go even further, training addresses individual performers but the performance environment affects all performers. Interventions that improve the performance environment are likely to deliver a broader and more lasting impact than even excellent training can.

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