You’ve heard this story a hundred times – a veterinary practice starts a new training program for their staff, full of energy and excitement, only to find that that excitement turns to frustration as staff members don’t complete the training, or complete it, but retain very little of what they learned after a short period of time. Why is this story so common?
1. The Forgetting Curve
In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus published a book on memory (1) that described the Forgetting Curve. This curve demonstrated how we forget information that we have been exposed to in a very predictable way over time. In fact, his research shows that we lose 50% of what we have learned in one hour, 70% within 24 hours, and after a week, we have lost 80% of what we learned. This is the sad fact every time we listen to a lecture, read an article in a journal, or watch a training video online. His findings have been reproduced many times, as recently as 2015 by researchers. The forgetting curve is the real enemy of learning. It is a battle that we often lose unless we can interrupt it.
The Forgetting Curve
The “forgetting curve” was developed by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. Ebbinghaus memorized a series of nonsense syllables and then tested his memory of them at various periods ranging from 20 minutes to 31 days. This simple but landmark research project was the first to demonstrate that there is an exponential loss of memory unless the information is reinforced. In 2015, a research team successfully reproduced his findings and concluded that his methods and theories still held true.
Spaced Learning to Combat the Forgetting Curve
Reviewing and refreshing information regularly halts the Forgetting Curve. (In figure 2, the dotted part of each curve shows what would likely happen otherwise.) And, although forgetting starts again after each review session, it’s slower than before. That’s why each new curve shown in figure 2 is shallower than the last. Image by the Mind Tools Content Team
2. We’re Busy and Don’t Have the Time
We are asked frequently at IGNITE if we offer cheap training that can upskill a CSR to full proficiency in one week. “We are busy and don’t have time for training that takes any longer”, they say. Unfortunately, the human brain disagrees with this request. Neuroscience tells us that several components are necessary for learning to interrupt the forgetting curve and allow concepts to become rooted in our minds and useful in the future. Unfortunately, quick rarely makes this list. Tactics that have been shown to produce learning results are repeated practice, spaced repetition, recall exercises (like low stakes quizzing), retrieval, relevance, elaboration, and learning you are interested in or can apply immediately. Unless we are teaching our staff topics that they see a clear benefit in learning, or they will see on their next few shifts, and then reinforcing that learning in meaningful ways, we are likely going to be challenged by forgetting.
3. That’s How I Learned In Veterinary School
OK, you say, well then what about how I learned in veterinary school? I’ll train my staff like that! I listen to a lecture, I took copious notes, and I read the notes over and over again until I had the information memorized.
While you do get fast gains in the initial phase of this style of learning, it tends to give you a false sense of security, called rising familiarity (2), that leads you to believe you have learned a concept fully, but in reality, you have not. What most likely helped you the most in veterinary school were the quizzes that caused you to see where you had holes in your learning, the elaboration required when the clinician asked you to relate a concept to a situation or case you had experienced, and the time spent in your study group, quizzing each other and discussing related concepts in real-life situations. Learning that lasts takes time, and needs to incorporate multiple techniques to make it stick and interrupt the forgetting curve. This is really the only way to create learning that leads to lasting behavior change. It’s not easy, but it works, and in the end, is a better use of your time and dollars to develop and elevate your staff.
(1) H. Ebbinghaus, Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology (New York: Dover, 1964) translated into English
(2) P. Brown, H. Roediger,III, M. McDaniel (2014). Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press – https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674729018