Is it time to forget about Ebbinghaus? |

Is it time to forget about Ebbinghaus?

Main points: 
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


garry platt's picture

Since 1885 the work of Ebbinghaus has been extensively developed and refined and indeed confirmed. The most recent material that I have read which directly relates to this subject is: J. D. Karpicke, J. R. Blunt. "Spacing Effects in Learning: A Temporal Ridgeline of Optimal Retention." Psychological Science, 19, 1095-1102. November 1, 2008

For a more detailed analysis of the Ebbinghaus proposal you could do worse than read an earlier piece I wrote this year:

jaimie stewart's picture

Why pick on Ebbinghaus? What you seem to being saying (or what I have interpreted in your article) is that when we are training we need to be mindful of what we use to validate our message. I think too many trainers can be over reliant on quoting random research to support their message and to try and gain buy in from their audience. All too often however I think this actually disengages the audience regardless of the validity of the research quoted.   

As L&D professionals, however, we all need to be aware of Ebbinghaus work, it helps especially when designing a workshop as it focuses us on memory retention.   This doesn’t mean I would quote him in a workshop. I also enjoyed Gary’s early post on this subject.  

robinhoyle's picture



Thanks for the article and the illustration using Ebbinghaus.  

I couldn't agree more that it is vital that our practise is evidence based and that we question the 'research says' merchants.  I attend conferences and read articles (here and elsewhere) which constantly use the 'research says' mantra - even when the things they are quoting - from statistics about 70:20:10 (always doubt round numbers, people) to the wonderful Learning Pyramid - are based on somewhat limited research if not completely made up.

The trouble is, there is plenty of research out there if we only take the time to read it, understand it and interpret it appropriately, neither underestimating what it says nor according too muc significance.  The problem is that trainers and others are increasingly driven to the 'digested read' version of everything.  The web - and especially social media - works on this basis and although deeper and more meaningful reading is often rewarded - who has the time and how many have the inclination?

If we are to be taken seriously by our colleagues, we must take the time to read the research, understand it and not rely on a precis provided in 140 characters.

Thanks again for the timely reminder.


Paul Matthews's picture




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Not just Ebbinghaus. Also the oft misquoted 55:38:7 figures from Albert Mehrabian. So many people use these figures wrongly when even a quick trip to Wikipedia, or even his own website for the original papers, will help people get it right.

I do have sympathy though for trainers who have never had reason to doubt a statement, and going back to the original research for every thing they present would be very onerous. To some extent we have to trust what we ourselves were taught and use that as a foundation.

Another issue is of course, what the learner takes away. In the case of Mehrabians’ figures the usual reason to quote them is to surprise people with how much of their general communication is non-verbal. It is the state of surprise we are seeking so the information that caused the surprise becomes more memorable, more ‘sticky’.

Cheers, Paul

alan matthews's picture

Thanks everyone for your comments. I must say I have some sympathy for trainers who quote research without fully looking into it. Many trainers are part-timers, balancing training with other aspects of their work, and don't have the time or inclination to keep up with current research or to go back and double check all the "facts" they come across in books or hear from other people.

But I do think we all need to be careful that we don't inadvertently compound the problem. If you're planning a training session and you're thinking of using a model, theory or statistic, just spend a little time on Google and read a few articles about it or find out what the research was and when it took place so you have a bit more background and can make some judgement about whether, and how, you use the reference. That need not take very long, it's just a way of checking your sources.

For example ( without wanting to keep picking on poor old Ebbinghaus ) how many people quote his "curve of forgetting" with no idea that his work was published back in the 19th Century and was based on such limited research? That doesn't invalidate the theory, but it might make you look a bit further and see whether there was anything more recent you could reference to back it up.

garry platt's picture

I notice Alan that on your web site for Training Trainers you include covering 'Learning Styles'. What research and evidence do you reference when covering this topic?

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