The “Forgetting Curve”

I am a big advocate of personal and professional growth—my own and promoting growth in others. For decades I have written all kinds of curriculum to invite people to become more aware of a given topic, gain understanding, learn skills, change attitudes, beliefs and behaviors and integrate all these into their own personal internal system of information. I love figuring out ways to synthesize information so it makes sense without people having to do all the research I usually do. I like to find activities and create discussion questions that lead to critical thinking.

If we are exposed to information during a brief period of time, even if in the moment we feel inspired, there is something called the Forgetting Curve. This shows how quickly we forget something presented to us if the information is not frequently repeated over a period of time and if we do not find ways to actively use what we have learned.   

We are living in an era where books, articles, podcasts and workshops are being rapidly produced and distributed. For the people developing these, I’m sure it is their deep desire that what they are presenting is absorbed and influences important changes in attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

It is important to appreciate that as good as the intentions are people who design workshops, webinars and or write books may not be having the impact they think they are because of how the brain actually learns and how quickly we forget.

Think about experiences you have had where you have attended a workshop or conference or read an article and felt inspired in the moment. You can feel confident that you have absorbed something really important and that it’s going to change the way you see the world. The problem is that you may remember being infused but the chances are you won’t remember much of what you learned unless it was extremely clear about how you should use it, that you could relate to it personally and that very quickly after this experience you had opportunities to apply what you learned in your own life. Just being inspired is not enough for something to really stick.

Courtesy Harvard Business Review

In an article published by the Harvard Business Review entitled Where Companies Go Wrong with Learning and Development , author Steve Gladeski shares the following:

“Organizations spent $359 billion globally on training in 2016, but was it worth it?

Not when you consider the following:

  • 75% of 1,500 managers surveyed from across 50 organizations were dissatisfied with their company’s Learning & Development (L&D) function;
  • 70% of employees report that they don’t have mastery of the skills needed to do their jobs;
  • Only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs; and
  • Only 25% of respondents to a recent McKinsey survey believe that training measurably improved performance.”

He goes on to share what is called “The Forgetting Curve,” created by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who pioneered experimental studies of memory in the late 19th Century. He found that if new information isn’t applied, we’ll forget about 75% of it after just six days. This information pops up in a lot of websites for businesses but I think it is relevant to all of us who either create or attend workshops or read articles.

Finding ways to help people remember and use what they are experiencing in workshops, when they read articles or watch YouTube or Ted talks, it won’t actually stick unless it is repeated over a period of time. It also is important to find ways to actively use something that is presented to reinforce it and help it integrate into other information and beliefs you have stored in your brain.


This information about The Forgetting Curve is important for all of us who want to be active life-long learners. In these times when there are so many issues being raised that have tremendous impact on the lives of people of color, I suggest we all take responsibility for ensuring that we actually remember important information and principles we receive. This is why I so value writing and participating in courses that are several sessions long and include outside reading rather than simply writing or attending workshops.

Now I’m wondering how many of my readers will remember what The Forgetting Curve is. Please consider what you need to do to remember that!

 Invitation for Reflection:

  1. Try to remember a workshop, news report, documentary article, or other form of media that focused on something important to you. How much of what you were exposed to do you still recall? What did you use from what you learned and did that help make that learning stickier?
  2. How can you use the information about The Forgetting Curve to inspire you to do more to promote an increase in what you remember? How much more are you able to integrate and use that information?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute