Instructional Design

The Learning and Forgetting Curve: How to Make eLearning Memorable

talentlms_blog_knowledgeYou haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a while. You try to sleep a constant eight (or six) hours, only to feel deprived (“I slept for only four hours last night!”). Tell us something new. Sleep deprivation is nothing uncommon anymore. The culprit? Multitasking with techno-stimulators: mobile phones, tablets, i-tunes and you get the drift.

Visuals and auditory stimulation activates the brain to focus and process these information signals and make sense out of them. The trouble begins when these signals have been a steady supply for the past 12 – 14 hours. Hence the layman term “burn out”. Relaxing before bedtime ensures a restful sleep.

Sleeping affects memory

Now why are we discussing sleep here?  A recent research on human memory links sleep and memory in a powerful co-relationship. 

What has my sleep got anything to do with my memory?

Sleep improves retention and focusing capabilities. Taking a short nap after learning or reading something challenging actually improves memorization and recall (Bjork, 2001). When we sleep, the dendrites (brain cells) grow and branch and connect to older dendrites, enhancing information connectivity. When you give your brain a chance to connect new knowledge with the prior experience, learning is “sedimented”. Which simply means, sleep registers your training or learning material into long-term memory.

Another common and deceptively heroic habit, that we all are so proud of, is multitasking.

But I thought multitasking got things done faster!

When we switch between activities too frequently, we lose perspective. Think how we switch between the email page, the project management page, the social media page, the research article and the eLearning screen! This habit is a major memory inhibitor. By viewing too many antagonizing or even similar information/activities we learn slower, become less efficient and make more errors. Allocate a fixed time for learning and focus exclusively.

Hermann Ebbinghaus’s Forgetting Curve

Still not convinced? Let’s examine the forgetting curve research by Hermann Ebbinghaus – the German Experimental Psychologist. Notice these key principles involved in the forgetting curve and how eLearning design can overcome them:

  1. The more meaningful the information is, the easier it is for humans to remember it. If new information is not relevant or valuable to the existing lives of the learner, it is more likely to end up in “memory dump”. When designing eLearning materials, it is important to understand the background of the learner and their learning as well as performance needs. State clearly in the learning objectives section how the objectives are linked to the work-context. For example, learning the latest application to execute mundane procedures in your organization, a recent job-aid update, a research release tutorial that demonstrates the need for a change and how to implement the change in a business process of your organization, a new equipment training, a sought-after certification training. In short, convince the learner that they would improve professionally or personally by completing the new training.
  2. When there is more learning material involved, the amount of time it takes to absorb information significantly increases. One habit to control is providing too much information in too little time. Divide a large volume of content into sections in eLearning. The more the content is divided into shorter bursts of information, the more learners are motivated to complete it in “steps”.
  3. As a general rule, learners are able to relearn information more easily than learning the subject matter for the first time. Relearning information repeatedly also increases the time it takes to forget it. When designing eLearning materials, repeat key information multiple times in various multi-media formats. For example, introduce key points in bullet form in one page. In the upcoming pages, add a short recall quiz in which learners sort or re-arrange the points in the right order. Another good habit to adopt when developing eLearning content, is to add a summary section in which you repeat these points again. To reinforce reLearning further, mention these key points at the beginning of the next section.
  4. Learners are able to learn more effectively when information absorption is spread out over a longer period of time, as opposed to having to learn it all at once. Again, dividing and categorizing a large content into sections, chapters and sub-chapters that is to be completed over the course of days and not hours is an effective way to avoid the forgetting curve. By doing this you not only help to prevent cognitive overload, but you also enable your learners to absorb and retain information for a longer period of time.
  5. Learners start to forget information immediately after the learning experience. In fact, this is the time when forgetting occurs most rapidly. However, forgetting will slow down over the course of time. A great way to overcome this unfortunate habit of the mind is to create hybrid or include the blended learning approach in your courses if possible. Such learning designs request for the learner’s participation in both the online and the live classroom training environment. Based on the Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, learners will have forgotten an average of 90% percent of what they have learned within the first month. Inviting all participants a few weeks post training and encouraging a discussion in which they talk about the application of the training is an excellent way to prolong and refresh their memory.

Tips to boost learning

The fundamental purpose of any online training or eLearning is to provide opportunity to the learner to fully absorb new skills and knowledge and apply them over the passage of time. Practice these tips to boost learning and its application:

  1. Encourage application of knowledge by integrating real-world scenarios or simulations in your eLearning course.
  2. Assess learning to determine progress after each chapter or if possible, sub-chapter. Learning activities that encourage reflection through synthesis of ideas are the best exercises to boost memory recall.
  3. Request follow-up learning sessions for learners who are not performing well in quizzes and tests. Depending on the subject-matter and the timelines available, schedule this post training meeting within a couple of weeks. Conduct an assessment towards the end of this follow-up session to measure improvement.
  4. Prevent cognitive overload by presenting information in “chunks”. Self-paced learning for learners who struggle with knowledge absorption and retention enhances their performance.

Promoting knowledge retention

Ebbinghaus has definitely uncovered some secrets behind the human memory. Using his research, eLearning developers can integrate features in their courses that promote knowledge retention and absorption. eLearning material design can be enhanced further by incorporating work-based scenarios and simulations. Blended eLearning is effective when learning material is challenging or long. Frequent assessments not only help gauge progress but also create a stronger memory pattern. As training managers, inform your learners the importance of sleep and avoiding multitasking for a more time-effective learning experience. Use these tips in your next eLearning course to create memorable materials.


Yang, G., Lai, C. S. W., Cichon, J., Ma, W., Li, W., & Gan, W. B. (2014). Sleep promotes branch-specific formation of dendritic spines after learning. Science, 344(6188), 1173. DOI: 10.1126/science.1249098

Classics in the History of Psychology, Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology

Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885), Retrieved from,