Remember To Remember The Forgetting Curve

How often have you been to a workshop or presentation – perhaps even on topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion – and soaked in all sorts of great information and tips, leaving motivated and empowered to make a change… only to realize a few days later that you could only remember one or two nuggets of information? Or perhaps nothing at all? Not even the thing that the presenter said “If you only remember one thing from today, remember this one thing…”

I recently learned (well, re-learned – we’ll get to that) about the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who studied how people learn and retain information. In 1885, he published a study showing the “Forgetting Curve” – demonstrating the exponential rate at which newly-acquired information is forgotten over time if there is no conscious attempt to retain it. Some studies suggest that people forget as much as 50% of new information within an hour of learning it, and around 70% within 24 hours. Learners will rapidly lose their memory of learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless the information is consciously reviewed.

You may find – like me – that this seems intuitive, but we continue to have similar experiences. I myself had entirely forgotten the term ‘forgetting curve’ and the name Hermann Ebbinghaus from my graduate degree in Psychology, and yet I have implemented and taught practices that stem from this work in much of my work over the last two decades. And yes, I still attend workshops and promptly forget almost everything I learned there. We are all inundated with constant information and demands for our time – exponentially more than Ebbinghaus in 1885 – that it might seem impossible to change based on what we learn. But it’s not.

So how do we remember to rememberSpaced learning (spreading the new acquisition out over a period of time) helps to shift the forgetting curve, with the learner retaining a lot more of what they’ve learned. Repetition helps more. Repetition coming through actively using that information – especially through physical action which engages your body – builds new muscle memory for your brain and body, which then starts to form new habits.

How can this be helpful as we work with our teams this week?

This Week’s Tip:

Remember to remember the Forgetting Curve:

  1. Take time to reflect and review. Find three 20-minute slots each week (or shorter more frequent slots) to reflect on what you have learned in the last few days – about the world around you, about the experiences of people who share different life experiences than your own, and about yourself. It may help to write down bullet point notes as a way to engage your body in retaining the information (not to share).
  2. Ask yourself how you can act on what you’ve learned. The action items could be anything: apologize for a comment you made; research more about a particular topic of interest; engage in volunteer service work; spend more time with a group of people outside your own identity group…
  3. Have grace for your team members. When someone on your team indicates a lack of awareness in an area where they ‘should’ know something, demonstrate grace. You may want to follow up to see how you can support them, but be aware that they experience the same forgetting curve that you do.
  4. Have grace for yourself. If you find yourself being self-critical, saying “I should have known that,” or “I shouldn’t have done that,” have some grace for yourself.  This isn’t a sign that something’s wrong with you or you’re a bad person; there are reasons we all forget and make mistakes.
  5. Ask for help and support from others. If you need help, ask for help. Talk things through with colleagues, friends, or loved ones. This help might look like talking through what you’ve been learning, engaging your body in sharing what you’ve learned in a way that will help you retain it.

Try this out this week and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group – we’d love to hear how it goes!

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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