Learning – Why
You Have to Forget to Remember

Learning – Why You Have to Forget to Remember

07Jan, 2020

I have often had sales leaders say, “I’ve heard that people forget approximately 80% of what they’ve learned in training after a week. So how do you make training effective?” Or even more directly, “Why should we spend time on training?”  The truth is we have all experienced frustration when people forget a large percentage of what they learn after a training.  What most people don’t realize is that our brains are designed to forget, and forgetting is only half the story.  


First, let’s take a step back and see where the emphasis on forgetting began. In the 1880’s Hermann Ebbinghaus published the Forgetting Curve, which measured the loss of memory over time.  Like most first-mover advantages, it stuck.  What people miss is that Ebbinghaus focused on memory decay instead of ways to increase learning retention.  He conducted his experiments by memorizing lists of random sounds and then measured himself on how long he could remember them.  With hindsight, we see that those random sounds had no contextual meaning or application, and as a result, they did not encourage retention. 

Storage & Retrieval

To see the other half of the story, we need to know that modern learning science looks at our brains like a hard drive.  Memories are stored and then retrieved.  The brain is saturated with memories every second of the day, so it developed a coping mechanism – it forgets.  Forgetting acts as a filter to determine which memories are relevant and likely to be needed again, and which are not.  The key is in the retrieval.  Learning doesn’t happen on the upload.  It happens on the retrieval, and that space between storage and retrieval can serve to deepen learning.  The harder the brain has to work to retrieve a memory, the stickier it will be the next time it is accessed.  This increased difficulty is why testing, often considered a dirty word, is one of the primary ways to seed learning in the brain.


So back to our sales leader – we should change the question.   We should ask how do we hack the brain’s learning process to make training effective?  We should take advantage of several learning tactics that help our brains retrieve the training:

  • Context: One of the first tenets of sales enablement is that any enablement effort should be aligned to the customer.  It’s not enough to know your product.  Salespeople need to connect their training to how it helps them provide value to the customer.
  • Continuous Training:  Training isn’t one and done.  It needs regular reinforcement. Knowledge retention can actually increase as time elapses between trainings at the right intervals.
  • Application: Learning must be applied.  Whether it’s recording a video pitch, doing a standup presentation, or roleplaying; it’s crucial that training is brought to the front lines where sales leaders can mentor and reinforce the training in real-time.

These tactics help store training in multiple neural networks in the brain, creating additional connections and pathways for our brains to retrieve and access these memories.  As with a search engine, the more connections and searches, the higher a memory will rank and the easier it will be to retrieve.

So, don’t be afraid of a little forgetting when developing and delivering your next training.  Look for ways to connect, reinforce, and apply your training content to improve its retention!

To dive deeper into learning science, I highly recommend HOW WE LEARN by Benedict Carey.