Timing Is Everything

Testing learning is as time critical as delivering it.

Since Ebbinghaus first came up with his theory of the Forgetting Curve in 1885, we have understood that memory degrades and the approximate rate at which it degrades, but that repetition in the learning process (e.g., active recall) aids knowledge retention. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve model even suggests the frequency of the repetitions to enhance retention.

Of course, what Ebbinghaus actually was describing is the degradation of short-term memory and one process whereby information can be slowly embedded in the long-term memory.

Ebbinghaus recognized that the timing, or spacing, of the learning inputs was key to knowledge retention. Some learning methodologies, such as active recall, utilize the principles laid down by Ebbinghaus, while our own solution, Download, employs neuroscience-derived Spaced Learning to embed information straight into the long-term memory.

However, there are two aspects to the training process, and both are time critical. The first is the learning input, and second is the testing to ascertain the effectiveness of the learning input. While some learning methodologies address the timing/spacing aspect of learning inputs in order to enhance learning outcomes, the time-critical aspect of testing often is ignored.

Short-Term Testing Is Not the Answer

We know that short-term memory degrades, and if we want to test knowledge retention, we need to test what information is in the long-term memory. If we believe Ebbinghaus—and more recent studies have verified his findings—then we know that up to 79 percent of learning is lost within 31 days. So why do we, more often than not, test learners right after a learning input? This is only a test of short-term recall as opposed to the testing of long-term memory knowledge retention.

Why do we provide training? So the knowledge that is provided can then be applied; so skill levels and performance improve. But training can only be applied if it can be remembered, and it can only be remembered if it is in the long-term memory. Testing the short-term memory will not help evaluate the training method or the learner.

Memory is formed through a chemical process, and that process takes time. You don’t go to the gym and walk out expecting to have instantly lost weight or become stronger. The same is true of memory. If you were to test someone an hour after he or she took a Download module, his or her recall would be limited. But test him or her five days later, and he or she should have excellent recall. The chemical processes would be complete, the memories formed. Test again after 31 days and you should see the same level of recall as the information is in the long-term memory. Therefore, we never recommend testing a learner until at least five days after a learning input.

The same discipline should be applied to testing irrespective of the learning methodology used. Testing should be designed to reflect Ebbinghaus and be conducted after short-term memory has degraded to a point at which the testing is a true reflection of what the learner actually has retained in the long-term memory. Ebbinghaus suggests that 67 percent of knowledge is lost within 24 hours, while other studies have suggested a slightly less dramatic degradation of memory. The most “optimistic” studies appear to suggest that approximately 50 percent of knowledge is lost within four weeks, the point at which Ebbinghaus suggests that 79 percent is lost.

It may be impractical to suggest that learners be tested a month after the learning input as some roles require certification in order to work and such delays would not be acceptable. But surely a minimum period of a week would be practical and provide a much more robust test of both the learner and the training delivery methodology. If we, as trainers and learning providers, are serious about delivering strong learning outcomes, we must put in place measures that help us more accurately assess and refine how we train and the true ROI that training provides.

Adam Beard is managing partner at Download Learning Ltd. For more information, visit www.businessreadybrains.co.uk or contact adam@downloadlearning.ltd.uk


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