5 Tips for Fighting the Forgetting Curve

How to Create Engaging Learning Programs That Spur Behavior Change


5 minute read

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One of my mom’s trademark phrases when I was growing up was, “You learn something new every day.” If my dad had been Hermann Ebbinghaus, the 19th-century German psychologist, he likely would have added, “Too bad your ability to remember what you learned drops dramatically the next day, and the next, and the next.” The reality check Ebbinghaus offers to counter my mom’s inspirational and cheery notion is based in research he conducted on memory retention. He performed experiments on his own ability to remember things and plotted the results as precipitous slope known as the Forgetting Curve, which shows just how quickly new information slips away.

Forgetting Curve

This is not news to learning professionals, learners, or anyone who has gone grocery shopping without a list. The challenge is what to do about it. As leadership development consultants looking for sustainable behavior change and performance improvement, enabling learning retention is paramount. It’s the crux of our mission. It is the only way we make a long-term impact. Leadership development training requires a significant investment in time and money, and the return on that investment is not directly found in the learning event itself, no matter how engaging, inspiring, and interesting it may be. The return is ultimately in how new skills, insights, and knowledge translate into new behaviors over time to yield results for leaders and their organizations.

That’s the most challenging aspect: over time.

According to Ebbinghaus, time is not on a learner’s side—we can lose up to half of what we learn after one day, and up to 90 percent in the first week. 

Fortunately, there are several strategies to combat this trend and sustain leadership development training—or any type of learning—beyond the event.

1. Begin with the end in mind. Clear learning goals—with training content and activities designed to meet them—are essential to any learning experience. But these learning goals need to be clear not only to those designing and delivering the program. Learners must know them too—along with the explicit details about how they’ll be expected to apply and demonstrate them. To that end, these goals must be realistic, relevant, and meaningful to the learner. They need to be able to see the value of applying their new skills and knowledge. Once goals are clear, be sure to . . .

2. Reflect sound adult learning principles in the content. Ebbinghaus’s research proposed several ways to address the Forgetting Curve and promote learning retention, and his findings align with what we now know as principles of adult learning. Content must be relevant, engaging, varied, and easy to understand. Small, repeated chunks of information are more likely to stick. New information is better retained when it can be tied to past experiences or existing knowledge, and when it is regularly reinforced. But remember . . .

3. The end is only the beginning. Leadership development is not a “presto change-o” experience. Learning professionals know that learners will not walk out of the classroom or sign off from the virtual learning session instantly transformed—and they need to make sure learners understand that as well. Level with learners. Tell them that leadership skills take practice, that growth is incremental, that trial and error are the norm, and that they’ll get out of it what they put into it. Talk about the Forgetting Curve, and make them accountable for combatting its effects. And if you are unable to personally connect with your learners to convey these important principles, consider engaging coaches who will support your learners. Make sure they understand that for true growth, they’ll need to . . .

4. Use it or lose it. Without opportunities for application, practice, and feedback, leadership development programs are pointless. Action planning allows learners to customize and personalize how they’ll use what they’ve learned, and the expectation that they follow through on them must be clear. Key players in this are the learners’ direct managers, whose engagement and support—and willingness to hold learners accountable—are critical for learning retention. Manager-learner conversations before, during, and after a training event or program can be rich with reinforcement opportunities. Examples include agreement on personalized goals and expectations for the learner, frequent debriefs and “how’s it going?” check-ins, distillation of learned concepts and insights into “what this means to you,” and praise and feedback as new behaviors emerge. Among the materials in our leadership development programs are course-specific Manager Conversation Guides, which provide discussion prompts and questions to help managers engage learners and do their part to make the learning take hold. A Manager Conversation Guide is only one example of ways you can . . .

5. Provide tools and strategies beyond the learning event. All of our leadership development courses end with a set of “post-session challenges” that outline ways to extend the learning experience. Standard among these challenges is an expectation that learners complete and execute any action plans and check in with an accountability partner from the program to discuss what’s working, what’s not, what’s easy, and what’s challenging as new skills and knowledge are applied. Other challenges may include content-related assignments: for example, interview a senior leader to get their insights on a learning topic; volunteer for a task force or committee; revise development plans to reflect new skills and knowledge; do a “teach-back” of a concept or model to your staff; keep a journal on specific observations or interactions; or attend follow-up alumni meetings to share experiences (also great for getting feedback on the program overall).

When the goal is not just delivering content in the short term but enabling retention of learning for the long term and seeing behavior change on the job, the likelihood of a leadership development program’s success jumps dramatically—perhaps as much as Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve falls.

Terri Schell-Practice Leader, Learning & Development -Dion Leadership_

Terri Schell

Practice Leader, Learning & Development

Terri has spent more than 15 years in various learning roles, including facilitation, instructional design and development, and management. Learning content creation is her jam. She is passionate about building relevant, engaging, and practical learning solutions that make leaders and workplaces better. Terri recently led the development team for a new e-learning course that supports work-life alignment.

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