You must remember this: Learning, apprenticeships and the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Paul Freeman ties together apprenticeships, Ebbinghaus and evaluation for this piece for TJ.

Reading time: 4m 30s.

If you sat any head of learning down and asked what best practice learning programme looked like, they’d talk about achieving the perfect blend of formal and social learning, supporting learners with coaching and mentoring, self-study and diagnostic assessment all following pre-training benchmarking and culminating in an end-of-programme assessment.

However, for too many, even those who have the time and budget to conduct their dream programme, the focus still remains on achieving a level of understanding, rather than ensuring an uplift in capability.

Kirkpatrick’s Model of Training Evaluation recognises the levels of measurement from reaction to learning to behaviour to impact. Knowing that the course was completed and the learners enjoyed the experience is the first tick in the box, but only that. 

Level two proves understanding, often through examination. But it’s level three where the ROI starts kicking in; when a learner is applying what they know to their work. It’s not just the move from theoretical to practical that makes the learning worthwhile, it’s the fact that by using the skills and capabilities that they’ve learned, your colleagues are more likely to retain the information.

According to the famous historical study by Professor Hermann Ebbinghaus, 90% of what is learned is forgotten in the first 30 days. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve is referenced by many learning professionals with an air of dread, as it implies that all the hard work spent training might have lessening impact as each day goes by. 

With access to very immediate information online, how important is it to retain specifics? Isn’t it better to know where to find the information?

But Ebbinghaus’ memory research was conducted in 1885 – 15 years before the birth of cinema, 100 years before the mainstream adoption of the internet, so long before the gamification of life that you wonder if it’s still relevant.

With access to very immediate information online, how important is it to retain specifics? Isn’t it better to know where to find the information? My answer, although not a very comforting one, is that the Ebbinghaus Curve is as relevant as ever. In fact, given the onslaught on our attention from 21st century overload, the curve could have become a cliff face.

ROI in learning has always been the holy grail. For many enterprises it can be hard to justify the expense of additional benchmarking and evaluation when training budgets are under pressure as it is. How do you prove capability uplift, not just training delivered?

The key is in the construction of the learning programme and engagement, the accessibility and availability of the learning resources and how that impacts the business culture.

The UK’s apprenticeship programme is not new but the radical changes that were introduced in 2017, and the Government’s ongoing support through the Apprenticeship Levy, have moved it forward, expanding the range of learning available (from cybersecurity to midwifery) and providing a recognised qualification to degree level and beyond.


Beside the scope of learning available, and partially-funded, the beauty of apprenticeships is the way that development programme is structured, how the apprentice spreads their learning across traditional training and work experience, gaining insight from colleagues, and putting into practice the recently acquired skills long before the forgetting curve has had a chance to take hold.

It seems strange that more training programmes don’t take notice of this method. But for many, apprenticeships remain the landscape of practical skills and understanding of the Apprenticeship Levy is sketchy to say the least. According to a CIPD survey, 22% of employers don’t know whether they have to pay the levy or not.

Not all apprenticeship providers are created equal and Ofsted’s Chief Inspector expressed concern last year after almost one-fifth failed an initial assessment. This doesn’t come as a surprise. Ofsted was caught short in supporting the huge increase in providers and allowing start-up organisations to operate without any quality checks. 

This will slowly right itself but not without damaging the image of apprenticeships in certain areas. The launch of the Apprenticeship Levy created a deluge of organisations looking to cash-in and a lack of governance in terms of regulating the RoATP (Register of Apprenticeship Training Providers). 

It’s vital that employers take the time to understand the quality provision and experience that their prospective providers bring to the relationship. 

Learning managers should develop a good understanding of the programme, the incentives and costs. It’s a mistake to dismiss apprenticeships because you feel your company is too small or you don’t have the time to dedicate to overseeing the apprentices. Get advice from an expert about how to recruit, how to train and mentor apprentices and look carefully at the financial return on investment. 

However, whether you decide to go down the apprenticeship route or not, it’s worth taking a note from its book. The programme structure works – and works across subject matter, industry and level – because of the way the training is punctuated by work experience, over a period of time, with evidence building throughout and end point assessment. 

Providing learning for employees is not enough, however well they might do on their industry qualifications. Without the formal inclusion of opportunities to put that newly found knowledge into action, the chances of them forgetting what they’ve learned is painfully high.

And for L&D? Guaranteeing capability uplift and performance improvement to the business area is all that can be asked of them. Whether that turns into articulated business benefit? Well, that’s a separate question the business needs to answer…


About the author

Paul Freeman is director of education and talent at Global Knowledge Apprenticeships.


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