Is it time to forget about Ebbinghaus?

Independent trainer
Transform Your Training
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Alan Matthews thinks that when we research, we need to always question our sources.
Research shows that:
  • People forget about 40% of what they hear after only 20 minutes
  • After one day, they will have forgotten nearly 70% of the information
What can you do about it? The best way to help people remember information is to repeat it at regular intervals. The more often you repeat it, the quicker they will recall it.
You may react to those statements in a number of ways. You may think, "That's interesting, I didn't know that". You may think, "Ah, yes, I've heard that before. That's true." Or you may even think, " Ah yes, that's from Ebbinghaus, who talked about the curve of forgetting." If you're a bit of a sceptic, you may think, "Oh yes? Who says? Where does that come from? What sort of research was it? Who did it and when? Is it still relevant?"
The points I made are, indeed, a very simplified account of what Ebbinghaus wrote. The two words which I think you should be most wary are "research shows". You come across this a lot, in books and manuals, in talks and articles. We trainers like to quote 'research' because it lends authority to what we say. But this vague phrase, 'research shows', should be treated with caution. For one thing, there have been some cases recently of people trying to find 'research' which is often quoted and not being able to find where it actually came from. Or, worse, finding out that no such research ever took place.
"If someone mentions research, they really should be able to say what research they're talking about and they should also, ideally, have read the original account of it to make sure what they are saying is accurate."
One example is the supposed research from Harvard (or it could have been Yale) about goal setting where 'they found"'that the 3% of people who wrote down specific goals made more money in later life than the other 97% combined. I've heard variations of this quoted lots of times by coaches and trainers but there are now several articles describing how people have tried to verify this research and it seems no such study was ever carried out. (Google 'Harvard goal setting study' if you want to look into it yourself.)
The other problem is that people often quote research but aren't sure what that research actually involved, when it happened or whether it is still relevant and valid. I hold my own hands up to this, I know I've done it myself.
If someone mentions research, they really should be able to say what research they're talking about and they should also, ideally, have read the original account of it to make sure what they are saying is accurate.
Let's take Ebbinghaus. A lot of people quote his figures. Some of them don't know they are quoting him, some do. What research did Ebbinghaus do to come up with his theory? He sat down and tried to learn lots of meaningless one-syllable words such as WID and ZOF and then tested himself to see how many he could remember. That's it. He didn't test anyone else. There was no wide sample of people involved. And he did this in the 19th Century, publishing his findings in 1885. So this theory, which is still quoted today, is based on one man's limited research, testing only himself, over 100 years ago.
Having said that, this was cutting edge stuff at the time because not much was known about memory then and neuroscience as we know it didn't really exist. Of course, there have been enormous advances since then in our knowledge of how the brain works and great developments in our understanding of learning and memory.
So am I saying we should forget about Ebbinghaus and not refer to his work? No, actually I'm not. I'm just saying, if you come across statistics from 'research', look into them a bit before you repeat them and find out where they came from. Then decide if that source is still valid.
In fact, I think Ebbinghaus's work does still have relevance and fits in with most people's experience of learning and forgetting. And trainers won't go far wrong if they use his work as a guide when designing their training and follow up activities. His work was a starting point for others who developed the investigations into the brain and how people learn and recall that have led us to what we know today. And more recent research shows that his general ideas were correct (oops, see what I did there?).
So don't forget about Ebbinghaus, just have an attitude of healthy scepticism when you hear people talking about 'research' and be careful what you repeat to others when you're training.
Alan Matthews is director of TransformYourTraining. He works with internal training teams to help them design and deliver exciting and engaging training. You can get a free copy of 'How To Be A Top Trainer' from and you can follow Alan on Twitter at @AlanMatthews11


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