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Learning and Forgetting

Humans are wired to learn, and we are also wired to forget. This may sound like a contradiction until we consider the huge amount of sensory information we are exposed to each day.

Humans are wired to learn, and we are also wired to forget. This may sound like a contradiction until we consider the huge amount of sensory information we are exposed to each day.

If we remembered everything we saw and heard from advertisements, social media, radio, television, conversations and every person and scene we see each day, we would be completely overwhelmed. Our long-term memory, huge as it is, would be full before we had even finished school. We would be unable to access information when we needed it, our minds would be like a giant warehouse full of books, videos and photos with no way to find anything inside.

We Need to Forget

So we have to be able to forget. As trainers, we try to ensure learners do not forget the important elements of what we teach. If something is not important, we need to ask ourselves; why are we teaching it? Could it be made available on an intranet page for colleagues to find if and when they need it?

Selective Memory

Even when we carefully plan what we wish to communicate, there is no guarantee that listeners will remember the parts we want them to. In Barack Obama’s 2011 State of Union address he made one small joke about salmon. Almost all of the remainder of the speech addressed serious political issues that related to jobs and social issues. Afterwards, 4000 listeners were asked what word they remembered most. It was ‘salmon’.

We’re not suggesting trainers should never tell jokes. Just that we need to be aware that attendees can only remember a finite amount and fun items can sometimes displace important points in memory. It may be an important piece of information which is forgotten at the expense of an interesting but non-essential fact. One solution is for trainers and learning designers to include engaging stories and anecdotes to illustrate key points.

Learning to Forget to Remember

There is an interesting relationship between forgetting and learning. If we reach the point where we have almost forgotten something we have learned and we then work hard to retrieve it, it will make our memory stronger. It seems that if we are barely able to retrieve it, and we have to work hard to pull the information back to the surface, then this action makes it more retrievable for the future.

Experienced Trainers Can Prompt recall

Experienced trainers often won’t give a complete response if they think the questioner might know the answer and be able to pull the information back to the surface. Instead they will try to coax the information out from the depths of the learner’s memory. This demands effort on the part of both trainer and learner, but it is a truly effective teaching technique.

Talking Point

  • Have you ever experienced learners who confirmed they understood a concept which they were later found to be unable to recall? What might you do to ensure they genuinely learned it?
  • If you found that part of an online learning module was forgotten by most participants a week or two later, what might you change to prevent this happening?

Find out more

Consider reading this article Everything You Thought You Knew About Learning Is Wrong if you would like to find out more about the realationship between forgetting and learning.

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