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Your Ultimate Guide to the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve


December 14, 2018


Hannah Malmstrom


Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Learning and development professionals continuously reference learning models to understand how our brain works and how they can be applied in modern training methods. In this article, we’ll examine the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve, a well-known model that shows how memories fade with time, and what we can do to improve knowledge retention. 

What is the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve?

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is considered a significant indication of how the brain processes information. It has been referenced by various scholars in the analysis of intervals within which information must be consolidated to be retained.

The forgetting curve is a mathematical formula that was discovered by Herman Ebbinghaus in the 19th century. The formula describes the rate at which information is forgotten after it is learned. This phenomenon of learning and forgetting is familiar to those who try to learn something the night before their exams.

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve - Graph

The Hermann study showed that the forgetting curve was initially very steep, and the knowledge retained dropped dramatically. But the memory eventually leveled off and he was able to remember a few things for many days later.

The study also showed that the drastic drop in remembering can be curtailed if the information is repeated at pre-determined intervals. This is the basis of the learning method that is better known as ‘spaced repetition’.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is based on the observation that the sharpest decline in retention occurs within the first twenty minutes and is significant within the first hour. The curve then levels off after a day. An important principle behind it is that increasingly less information is retained after each attempt at revising – a key principle to why cramming for exams is inefficient.

According to psychologists, Ebbinghaus would memorize a list of items until perfect recall and then would not access the list until he could no longer recall any of its items. He then would relearn the list and compare the new learning curve to the learning curve of his previous memorization of the list. The second list was generally memorized faster.

Ebbinghaus Experiment

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German pioneer of psychology, is perhaps best known for his 1885 publication which would later become known as Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology which first described the Ebbinghaus forgetting curve.

Hermann Ebbinghaus

Through his findings on memory, Ebbinghaus transformed learning theory in 1885 when he produced the curve, dictating the rate at which our memory declines. Although many have found exceptions in the ability of learners to retain recently absorbed knowledge, the psychologist’s theory still holds up in how we remember and forget material today.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve Formula & Spaced Repetition

The periodic repeating of learning would become known as spaced repetition (also known as distributed practice) and, in recent times, has been enhanced to create an optimized spaced repetition schedule. 

The addition of computer software to the schedule has meant that this methodology has become even more effective because the computer remembers which answers you got right and so doesn’t waste time and effort repeating related questions.

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve is an exponential relationship between memory retention and time. When plotted on a graph, it shows that the retention of new knowledge will halve in a matter of days or weeks if no effort is made to embed it. 

More importantly, the curve of forgetting shows that if a conscious effort is made to retain the knowledge, by revisiting it periodically, the likelihood of it embedding in long-term memory is dramatically improved. The proactive practice of such revision would become known as spaced repetition.

Combat forgetting curve with Spaced Repetition

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve and spaced repetition are now core principles in the learning toolbox and, in recent times, are being increasingly embraced in institutional and corporate training alike.

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve Factors

  • Having knowledge previously stored in the memory facilitates an advantage to the learner, allowing for a more seamless learning process when new knowledge is presented.
  • The importance of the knowledge must be communicated to learners, as the more detrimental they think the information is to their job, the more they will revise, remember and recall course content.
  • People’s strengths and weaknesses are prevalent in different areas, meaning remembering information comes easier to some more than others.
  • Being aware of one’s surroundings and having an adequate understanding of general knowledge further enhances the capacity of learners to memorize more. This is due to their ability to ‘fit in’ the newly learned material into previous situations or relate it to a familiar commodity.
  • The extent to which the learner retains new information depends on how often the material is revised or presented in an educational climate.
  • The frequency of information retrieval is heavily influenced by the percentage of knowledge that will be stored in long-term memory.

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve & Corporate Training

In the corporate world, this poses a huge problem for the training department. This is because nearly 50% of new information is ‘forgotten’ within the first hour, while 70% is lost within 24 hours of the completion of the training.

This is where microlearning and spaced repetition go together. Microlearning is an ideal solution since the content that is provided is bite-sized that can be easily digested and recalled.

Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve and Corporate Training

The required information can be presented as mini-games, videos, or infographics along with 10-12 quizzes for the learner. These 2 to 5-minute microlearning modules can be accessed anywhere and anytime by learners at the time of their need.

Our brains have a limited capacity to remember only the information we use and discard anything that we don’t use. Hence, the workaround for this is to learn and recall the same information in different ways at different times.

Apart from this, bite-sized lessons and mobile education have the advantage of being quick and convenient for modern learners who have short attention spans and multiple levels of distractions.

Supermemo SM 2 Interval Algorithm

SC Training (formerly EdApp) uses rapid refresh in its microlessons to counteract the effect of the Forgetting Curve. Its short quizzes reinforce key takeaways from meetings to make sure that learners’ retention of new knowledge is significantly increased and embedded into long-term memory. This, in turn, means that concepts are better understood and gives learners the opportunity to apply what they’ve learned.

SC Training's Rapid Refresh

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Tips to remember while using the spaced repetition technique

Give context to the learning material

Merely defining a concept will not do unless the context of the application of the content is explained in detail. If a new concept is being taught to the learner, provide an example of its real-time application in the context of your own job/ task.

Combat forgetting curve by giving context to learning

In case it is a familiar concept, introduce an example of application in a different job/task. Explain the concept in your own words.

Review learning materials once a day

Just as cramming all workout sessions in a day and not exercising after that fails to build muscles, memory too can be built only over consistent effort over time. That’s why it’s best to review the content to refresh your memory once a day. Make sure your brain has enough rest between the repetitions.

Review Learning Materials

Choosing a powerful tool to help employees remember the information by overcoming the ‘forgetting curve’ will not only save time but reduce the average corporate spend on re-training their staff. This is where powerful microlearning tools like SC Training (formerly EdApp) come in.

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Hannah Malmstrom

Hannah is an eLearning writer who dedicates her time to creating in-depth content about SC Training (formerly EdApp), a multi-award-winning mobile LMS that has pioneered one of the most progressive microlearning solutions on the market. She brings years of writing experience in the online software industry to her current role in the eLearning sphere. When she's not writing, you can find her catching up on new anime series or re-reading her favorite novels.

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