How to conquer the ‘forgetting curve’ in employee learning
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How to conquer the ‘forgetting curve’ in employee learning

When employees are sent for training, the minimum expectation is that they’ll retain what they learned. After all, managers didn’t spend all that money just to give them a couple of days off.

Trouble is, they don’t.

Ever since German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus discovered the “forgetting curve” back in 1885, dozens of studies have confirmed that when people are exposed to a learning concept one time, after 30 days they retain just 20%.  As a result, employers over the years have wasted veritable pots of money on training that didn’t stick.

But you don’t have to be one of those employers. There’s a model for effective follow-up that will help your people retain and use much more of what they learn in the original training.

A problem of retrieval

Let’s look first at what happens when human beings forget. It’s not that we learn stuff and then it leaks out of our brains, like water through a sieve. Brain science tells us that everything we learn remains in our head. The problem is, as time passes, we can’t retrieve it.

For training to stick, people need to repeatedly revisit what they learned. Each instance of this “interval reinforcement” strengthens neural pathways that enable people to retain the learning. If multiple “retrieval events” are administered, eventually trainees develop habits and achieve mastery of skills.

In sum, learning is a process. Unfortunately, too much training is treated as an event. When most employees receive instruction in a learning event, their skill level rises. Then, over time, performance falls off, rendering the time and money spent training them a waste.

Four Rs

To avoid this outcome with your trainees, here’s an interval reinforcement model you can follow. It’s called “The Four Rs”:


A day or two after a training event, ask trainees to describe what they learned. Restating the highlights from their notes forces them to retrieve what they heard and increases knowledge retention. Ask how they intend to deploy the learning, as in, “You got three powerful concepts from the training. What actions do you plan to take in the next few days to use them?”

Reinforce correct behavior

Great managers observe trainees in action and give positive feedback when skills are applied correctly, as in, “This past week I noticed that several times you praised people on your team for specific tasks they did well. Great to see you’re using what you learned.”


Invariably trainees will deploy some of their new skills incorrectly. So model the way. Conduct role plays where you revisit key concepts. Then telegraph your determination to follow through, as in, “Try out the language we just role-played and let’s meet again soon; I’m eager to hear how things went.”


Learning to deploy new skills can be challenging and it’s easy to fall back into old habits. So at some point managers need to refocus trainees on the goal, as in, “This is hard, but it’s important because employees who feel recognized are more productive and rarely jump ship. Mastering this skill will help the company, and make you a more valuable manager.”

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Why 80% of Training Doesn’t Stick and What You Can Do About It,” which incorporates concepts from the following research study:

Slamecka, N. (1985). Ebbinghaus: Some associations. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 11(3), 414–435.



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