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Ideas Instructional Design

Making a Memory

Struggling to remember important concepts? You may need help curbing the forgetting curve.

Think of the last time you had to remember a grocery list, the names of a group of people you just met, or the directions for how to use the office coffee maker. You probably realized that your short-term memory has its limits. Numbers, names, or process steps can disappear from our minds in under a minute.

To combat this, we often repeat what we need to remember over and over again until it sticks. At least until we believe it’s stuck. Research shows that memories of newly acquired material often halve in a matter of days. This rate of forgetting varies from person to person, and it depends on a number of factors, including the difficulty level of what we’re trying to learn, how meaningful the information is to us, how it’s presented, and physiological influencers, such as stress and lack of sleep. Regardless, we all have what is known as a “forgetting curve.”

The concept of a forgetting curve comes from a somewhat dubious study Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted—on himself—in 1885. During the study, Ebbinghaus attempted to memorize nonsense syllables, such as “WID” and “ZOF” by repeatedly testing himself after various time periods and recording the results. The further apart those time periods were, the less he remembered. Ebbinghaus plotted the results on a graph, creating a forgetting curve that illustrated how newly learned knowledge is quickly lost if we don’t consciously review it over time. Despite the limited scope of his study, researchers have found his results to be mostly on the mark.

It’s important to note that learning goes beyond mere memorization. People need to recognize relationships, understand cause and effect, and accurately apply concepts; but before they can do any of that, they need to recall the facts.

That’s why developers of online training are always looking for ways to combat the forgetting curve. They want their learners to remember the policy or process they are trying to instill. Several strategies have been developed to facilitate the processing of information from short-term to long-term memory and avoid cognitive overload. Some have been highly successful, some misused, and some deemed misguided. Let’s take a look at a few to determine how to turn memories into learning.


At some point during your education, someone may have told you that you are a visual learner, or perhaps a verbal learner. Maybe you’ve come to believe you are a kinesthetic learner, which means you prefer to use your body, hands, and sense of touch. The truth is, the notion of learning styles has largely been debunked.

“Learning styles do not work,” says Philip M. Newton from the School of Medicine at Swansea University in the UK, “yet the current research literature is full of papers which advocate their use. This undermines education as a research field and likely has a negative impact on students.”

If you disagree with Newton’s assessment, you are not alone. He found that the overwhelming majority (89%) of recent research papers listed in the ERIC and PubMed research databases implicitly or directly endorse focusing on using learning styles in higher education, despite there being no actual research supporting their use.

Others, like Paul Howard-Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University, consider learning styles a “neuromyth.” He writes in a 2014 paper that “the practice is characterized by a misunderstanding, misreading, or misquoting of scientifically established facts.”

This is not to say that people don’t have preferred ways of consuming information. But if you try to apply this “neuromyth” in eLearning, you likely won’t see the results you’re hoping for. In fact, you may even discourage some of your audience.

“Students who are labeled as having a dominant learning style may then choose not to pursue subjects which they perceive as being dominated by a different learning style,” writes Newton. “Or they may develop a false sense of confidence in their abilities to master subjects which they perceive as matching their style.”

The way you present eLearning content is important. But instead of focusing on learning styles, consider factors such as the location where learners will take the training. Will they have access to headphones or mobile devices? How much of an employee’s job involves operating machinery? Also consider whether the content lends itself to image representation. Combining presentation strategies can help appeal to broader audiences.


One of the current educational trends is to use video content that appeals to Millennials. Studies show that approximately 54% of Millennials visit YouTube daily, and that they prefer video content over other mediums.

There’s no question that video can be an effective tool for presenting concepts if it’s used appropriately. However, simply watching a video multiple times isn’t necessarily more effective than re-reading content to create more permanent memories. It’s best to supplement videos with additional activities that allow learners to engage with the content in multiple ways, including quizzing and the application of concepts.

Educators also need to be careful about how much they include in their videos. In his book User-Centered Requirements Engineering, Alistair Sutcliffe compares our senses to computer processing with visual and auditory short-term memory “buffers.” He explains how these input buffers are “constantly being overwritten due to the quantity of data being consumed and the limited capacity of our short-term memory.”

Cramming too much content (e.g., animated images, text, music, and narration) into a single “information field” that the learner must interpret can have poor results. Just as shorter sentences are a writer’s best friend, videos that limit the amount of sensory input can help prevent cognitive overload. If you really want to hook your audience with a video that pulls out all the stops, make sure to repeat key concepts later on using simpler presentations.


Microlearning has become a popular approach for reducing cognitive overload and improving knowledge retention. That’s because it presents content in bite-size chunks that are easily digestible. Just make sure you know the limitations of microlearning. If you simply need to spread awareness of an easy-to-understand topic, then a five-minute course might do the trick. Bite-sized refreshers that allow learners to practice more complex concepts can also be helpful in memorizing new material.

Microlearning is less impactful if it’s used to entirely replace eLearning courses on more complex subject matter, or if it’s created to serve as a standalone experience. Learning processes that consist of numerous subtasks and skills require time and patience, as well as ample opportunities for learners to apply and explore. A one-time, five-to-ten-minute experience isn’t likely to find it’s way into our long-term memory.


Now that we’ve looked at some misguided approaches to memorizing information, let’s look at ways to turn short-term memories into long-term learning. The first step in doing this is to demonstrate how the subject will be useful. In Learn Better, Ulrich Boser writes:

“When learning a new process, especially one that is challenging, you are more likely to focus and remember important details if you view the information you’re learning as valuable.”

Learning is often a matter of making knowledge and skills significant in some way. Dr. Chris Hulleman, a Research Associate Professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, has conducted experiments focused on examining the extent to which helping students find relevance in their coursework increases learning and interest.

In one such study, Hulleman found that by encouraging students with low-success expectations to make connections between their lives and what they were learning in their science courses, they not only increased their interest in science in general, they also showed improvement in their grades.

To help learners find value in what they’re learning, it’s crucial that you take the right approach. Informing learners that they need to complete training to keep their jobs will likely motivate them to take the training, but it may not motivate them to remember key concepts.

Instead, help them connect what they’re learning to improvements in their or their colleagues’ daily work lives. Show them how it will improve their ability to address client needs, or how it will increase their reputation as an expert in their field. If the subject matter doesn’t present such easily identifiable value for your learners, try to evoke a sense of Epic Meaning & Calling by helping them appreciate the bigger picture of their role in the organization’s success.


Content chunking is a strategy for making more efficient use of our short-term memory by grouping related pieces of information together. When it comes to remembering things like phone numbers, chunking nine numbers into groups of three and four often helps us remember them. It helps the brain process the information easier and faster.

In an eLearning course, chunking is accomplished by separating content into modules and, if needed, then dividing those modules into sections. Again, these modules should include a variety of approaches for presenting content and opportunities to test understanding or apply concepts. The content should have a rational flow, starting with basic and broad concepts and progressively advancing into more complex ideas.

This approach allows learners to take breaks to learn at their own pace. A key advantage of online training is that learners can engage with content on a schedule that works best for them. Chunking the content helps them absorb the knowledge they need to perform their jobs at an optimal level.


Making content meaningful to your learners and chunking it into modules is a great start, but these approaches won’t fully address the challenge of the forgetting curve. Consistently revisiting content is a crucial step in the process of remembering it. However, repetition needs to be more than re-watching a video or reviewing highlighted or bookmarked text.

“On your first reading of something, you extract a lot of understanding. But when you do the second reading, you read with a sense of ‘I know this, I know this,’” explain psychologists Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel, coauthors of Make it Stick. “So basically, you’re not processing it deeply, or picking more out of it. Often, the re-reading is cursory—and it’s insidious, because this gives you the illusion that you know the material very well, when in fact there are gaps.”

The best way to solidify information and retrieve it when needed? Practice, practice, practice! Ulrich Boser writes, “Using active learning strategies—like flashcards, diagramming, and quizzing yourself—is much more effective, as is spacing out studying over time and mixing different topics together.”

This is where microlearning can be effective. Bite-sized follow-up courses can be great for reinforcing comprehensive concepts. One way to do this is to use the learner’s performance to determine which micro-content to serve up to them later. Using a platform that can identify the content employees know or don’t know allows for the deployment of targeted microlearning courses that are delivered to learners on an ongoing basis. Even giving learners recurring opportunities to practice concepts they know well gives them valuable, repeated exposure to the content you want them to remember.

These are just a few of the approaches that will help your learners make a lasting memory. The books mentioned provide a wide range of additional strategies to explore. By structuring eLearning solutions into smaller components and coupling those well-chunked courses with frequent practice and reinforcement, we can curb the forgetting curve.

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