Conquering the Forgetting Curve

Cameron Mitchum, MSN, RN-BC, CCRN is a Nursing Professional Development Facilitator in the Professional Nursing Development Department at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.

Most Nursing Professional Development Specialists (NPDS) have, at one time or another, lamented, “But I taught our staff that already!”   In our fast-paced, technologically advanced society, the NPDS may feel we roll large amounts of information out to learners only to have the learner forget it quickly.


The problem with forgetting, however, is not new.


In 1885 Hermann Ebbinhaus developed a mathematical formula to extrapolate a hypothesis of the nature of forgetting. Since Ebbinhaus described his Forgetting Curve his research has been supported and expanded upon by memory experts.

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The speed of forgetting depends on the information's meaningfulness to the learner, how the information is presented, and the nature of the learning barriers which must be overcome. The curve varies little among individuals and the good news is that it can be improved upon.


Spaced Interval Learning is a well-recognized method which has been demonstrated to help learners retain information.  In this model educators provide small amounts of information frequently and over a long period of time.  The results are memories which are retained and retrieved more efficiently.


Massed learning, large amounts of information presented all at once to staff, does not lend itself to easy memory retrieval. Instead of the traditional hour-long class, we can provide small amounts of pre-requisite information in advance of a class.  And instead of listening to a lecture, learners can work together to develop case studies or complete exercises to engage that part of the brain which moves new information into long-term storage.  Over the weeks and months following the class, the NPDS can provide reminders periodically which help to trigger those memories.  Such periodic boosters enhance the neuro-biology of remembering.


While most of us don’t like taking tests, the fact remains that testing is a very effective method to trigger long-term memory. Fill in the blanks, essay, and multiple choice questions offer the learner the opportunity to remember what was learned.   Immediate and long-term testing is a well validated technique to improve memory retention.


We forget quickly.  Neurobiology is the culprit.  We can help people remember by providing small amounts of information, spaced over time, which build upon information.


We can conquer the forgetting curve!


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