Testing Learning Is As Time Critical As Delivering It

Testing Learning Is As Time Critical As It Is Delivering It
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Summary: It is recognized that there are optimum times to learn and optimum pacing for that learning. The same is true for testing, but this is often ignored to the detriment of both the learning outcome and the credibility of the learning process.

Testing Learning And Delivering It: Why Are Both Time Critical?

Since Ebbinghaus first developed 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 was actually describing is the degradation of short-term memory and one process whereby information can be slowly be embedded in 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 whilst there are now applications that employ neuroscience derived Spaced Learning to embed information straight into the long-term memory.

Discussing The Two Aspects

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

We know that short-term memory degrades, and if we want to test knowledge retention, we need to be testing 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% of learning is lost within 31 days. So why do we, more often than not, test learners straight after, or even during, 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 improvement and staff development to maximize their own potential. 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. To test the short-term memory will not help evaluate the training method or the learner.

Discussing Memory In More Detail

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 they had learned via an application that placed information directly into the long-term memory, their recall would be limited. Test them five days later, and they should have excellent recall. The chemical processes would be complete, the memories formed. Test them 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. Ideally, we would test even later than that.

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

It may be impractical to suggest that learners be tested a month after the learning input. Many roles, such as those in construction or security which have heavy compliance, require certification in order to work, and such delays would not be acceptable. But surely a minimum period of one week would be practical and it would also provide a much more robust test of both the learner and the training delivery methodology.


Forgive me if I finish on a cautionary note. I recently had a conversation with the head of learning for a global financial institution. He openly admitted that they test ‘during learning’ which he knew was not delivering a fair reflection of learning outcomes. But what it was helping deliver was reduced learning times which was operationally desirable. Desirable that is until compliance fails, and the business finds itself the subject of fines and compensation claims.

If we, as trainers and learning providers, are serious about delivering strong learning outcomes that benefit both the business and the employee, we must put in place measures that help us more accurately assess and refine how we train and the true ROI that training provides.