Beating the Forgetting Curve with Distributed Practice

Beating the Forgetting Curve with Distributed Practice
Summary: After our inspiring and thought-provoking interview with Connie Malamed, we were left wondering about the interesting human nature that is revealed with the ‘forgetting curve’, and its impact on learning design. We set out on a journey to explore and learn more about this phenomenon. Read on...


If you read the research on how much people forget after training, it’s depressing. Do a search for the ‘Forgetting Curve’. Once we know something like this, we need to change our approach and educate others.”- Connie Malamed (The eLearning Coach)The above quote is from our interview with Connie Malamed.


After our inspiring and thought-provoking interview with Connie Malamed, we were left wondering about the interesting human nature that is revealed with the ‘forgetting curve’, and its impact on learning design. We set out on a journey to explore and learn more about this phenomenon.Below are the questions we had in mind when we embarked on our journey:

  • What is the ‘forgetting curve’? What is its significance in learning design?
  • What are the strategies and techniques to tackle this human phenomenon in learning?
  • What are some of the useful resources available on this subject for learning professionals?


One of the most intriguing features of the human mind is that it is volatile in nature (just like the Random Access Memory (RAM) in a computer). Over time, we forget most of what we’ve acquired. That is how human brain is wired. And, as we know, just like how RAM and the Hard Disk Drives are used in computers to handle the issue of memory loss, human brain has short-term memory and long-term memory to manage this limitation.

Due to this nature, in a learning scenario, learners are able to remember only a very small percentage of the learning they received in a learning program or event; most of the learnings are lost after a few days or weeks, unless they review the newly acquired knowledge. This is one of the reasons why most of the learning initiatives in workplaces around the world fail when it comes to retention of the learning. That is, our traditional training programs are not able to help learners remember their learnings after a period of time.

It was Hermann Ebbinghaus – the German Experimental Psychologist who helped us realize this fact (about forgetting) after extensive research, plotting his results using the ‘forgetting curve’ – a graph that revealed the relationship between forgetting and time. The term forgetting curve relates to the decline of memory for human beings over time, and the graph shows how information is lost over time, if it is not practiced through reinforcements or reviews.Here are the significant findings from Hermann Ebbinghaus’ research conveyed through the forgetting curve (Courtesy: The Human Intelligence):

  1. Learners find it easier to memorize materials that are meaningful or relevant to them than those that are meaningless or non-relevant.
  2. The amount of time that learners take to learn dramatically increases with an increase in the amount of learning material.
  3. Learners find it easier to relearn than to learn everything initially itself. Also, after each subsequent re-learning, learners take longer time to forget their learning.
  4. Learners find learning more effective when it is spread out over time than when it is taken in a single marathon learning session.
  5. Learners forget their learning most rapidly right after learning occurs. And, their forgetting slows down over time.

These findings have great significance for learning professionals while developing learning interventions. Techniques to tackle the issues above include making learning materials smaller (micro, byte-sized learning), easy, relevant, powerful, and hence memorable. However, in order to help learners overcome their limitation with respect to their memory, Distributed Practice (also known as Spaced Rehearsal, Spaced Repetition, or Spaced Practice) is the most effective instructional strategy that is recommended. It is a learning strategy in which learning or practice is broken up into a number of short sessions spread out over a long period of time. This is absolutely contrary to the traditional ‘mass practice’ method where learning is imparted with the help of longer training sessions within a short period of time. The spacing effect (increasing spacing between learning sessions) in the distributed practice method helps maximize retention in learners by strengthening our long-term memory.Below are some of the most interesting resources (from a big list we examined in this exploratory journey) on this subject that we would like to share with you.

Excerpts from Experts

Here are some amazing insights (in the form of excerpts from some of the authoritative research papers that we reviewed and the interviews that we conducted):

  • The spacing effect is one of the oldest and best documented phenomena in the history of learning and memory research.” - Harry Bahrick & Lynda Hall (Journal of Memory and Language)
  • …one training event is not sufficient for people to transfer learning to new situations. If you are seeking strong retention and learning transfer, people need distributed learning and performance support.” – Connie Malamed (in our interview with her)
  • In the industrial model, we cram as much information into the heads of the learners as possible in eight hours of instruction and hope they learn it. In the distributed practice model, we can “feed” small learning bits to learners everyday for weeks at only fifteen minutes at a time until they learn the material. We can then send a periodic “check” or assessment to see if the knowledge is retained and then, if not, send more instruction. The concept of distributed practice has been known for decades as an effective learning technique but who wants to “study” every day. Game-elements help learners look forward to quizzing themselves everyday on the content and make it enjoyable to engage with the content every day” – Karl Kapp (in our interview with him)
  • Learning is a process not a series of events and it needs to be underpinned by models that support continuous learning as part of the workflow, and of learning with others and, where effective, through structured courses and programs.” – Charles Jennings (in our interview with him)


Here are some additional resources that we found on our journey:Videos

  • Learning and Forgetting Curves - In DepthA brilliant video (from Dr. Will Thalheimer of Work-Learning Research, Inc.) that discusses how to design and deploy learning interventions drawing our understanding from forgetting curves.
  • Key Concepts in Spacing Learning Over TimeA wonderful video (from Dr. Mark McDaniel, professor of Psychology and Education at Washington University) that discusses some of the key concepts in spacing learning over time.
  • Repetition is the Mother of All LearningAn interesting video (from Ed Reiner) that explains the significance of repetition when changing paradigms, using a simple and illustrated analogy.



  • Why do Employees Forget? This is a brilliant presentation based on a webinar (by Carol Leaman, CEO, Axonify) that discusses how soon employees start forgetting newly acquired information after a training session, and the reason behind this. The webinar also includes thoughts on how this could be changed.
  • 8 Reasons to Focus on Informal & Social LearningHere is a presentation in which Charles Jennings (Founder, The 70:20:10 Forum) briefly touches upon the forgetting curve, in the context of informal and social learning within workplaces, to prove his point about the ineffectiveness of formal learning.


  • Encouraging distributed practice through distributed testingThis is a good post (from Teaching Commons) on the benefits of using the Distributed Testing method for Distributed Practice.
  • How We Learn - Ask the Cognitive ScientistA good article (by Daniel T. Willingham, Associate Professor of Cognitive Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Virginia and the author of ‘Cognition: The Thinking Animal’) on how to allocate students' practice time as they learn new material in classrooms. The author proves his points using research findings from the various experiments conducted in different parts of the world on this subject.
  • Distributed Versus Blocked PracticeThis is a short but interesting article on the benefits and effectiveness of distributed practice over blocked practice illustrated using a basketball scoring example.

Case Study

  • The Gamification of HealthcareHere’s an inspiring real-world story that proves the effectiveness of combining the powers of distributed practice with retrieval practice to increase retention benefits.


  • AnkiThis is a popular spaced-learning (desktop & mobile) application that helps us put spaced repetition into practice. Anki’s algorithm helps us memorize things in the most efficient way.


As we came to end of our search, we had the following learnings as ‘take-aways’ from our little journey:

  • Many research findings and use cases point to the retention benefits of distributed practice in learning programs. Hence, it is imperative today to adopt this strategy as an integral part of learning design, along with other learning methods that we are following.
  • Distributed practice can be effectively embedded with today’s learning trends such as informal and social learning, gamified learning, and ubiquitous learning. Learning designers should make a deliberate attempt to find ways to integrate this method into these new learning trends while designing learning interventions.

What are your thoughts on the forgetting curve and its implications on learning design? How do you look at the distributed practice or the spaced repetition technique? What resources would you like to share on this subject?