Beating the Forgetting Curve: The Psychology of Apps in Learning

Here at Unicorn HQ we have a favourite quote: “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” Originally attributed to Benjamin Franklin, it’s not just a tag line, it’s become something of a mantra to live by…

Benjamin Franklin quote on blue background

In the rapidly changing world of digital technology, we’ve got smart-device overload. Nowadays, the possibilities for deploying learning are just about endless, as people’s unrestricted access to the latest tech means almost complete ubiquity of smart phones, tablets and portable computers. Whilst this fact presents new and exciting possibilities for changing the ways we deliver and consume learning, the basic principles that underpin the learning experience remain for the most part unchanged. What Mr Franklin aptly hit upon in his quote of which we are so fond is the idea that in order to catalyse real behavioural (or ‘real life’) change, the learning experience must be both memorable and immersive.

Enhancing knowledge retention and designing learning interventions that reinforce and give practical context goes beyond simply making courses compatible with the latest operating systems, devices and browsers. Instead, we need to go deeper into the psychological process that underpins learning and shift our understanding of the learning problem from a simple question of delivery to something more fundamental.

Image of the brain with labels representing different elements of memory

The Psychology Bit

Taking into account the brain’s capacity to absorb, retain and actively recall information, the challenge we consistently face is to find ways to deliver learning that percolates beyond the superficial layers of a person’s memory and taps into the longer term psyche. We know with the move away from traditional, PC-based linear training towards something more dynamic, that learning requirements are changing. Rather than ‘box-ticking’, organisations increasingly recognise the need to deliver learning that goes deeper to yield real behavioural change.

In order to achieve this, learning solutions must tailor educational experiences to navigate the potential pitfalls of the learning process without causing cognitive overload, or allowing learners to simply forget what they have been taught. In order to achieve this, it’s important to deliver learning experiences in digestible chunks, with follow-up and reinforcement that means learners are then encouraged to use and consolidate the learning soon after the original intervention. In the context of compliance training, this approach begins to reposition learning not simply as an annual necessity, but rather as something embedded in the regular activities of learners.

Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve graph

Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve: the longer we wait to apply newly acquired knowledge to real-life situations, the more likely we are to forget it – with the act of recall becoming more difficult the further in to the past the learning took place. learners often forget an average of 90% percent of what they have learned within the first month!

Getting Ahead of the Curve

Here at Unicorn, we believe that one such way to deliver learning that sticks is through the use of mobile Apps.

The average iPhone user unlocks their phone an average of 80 times per day. -Business Insider

Portable technology is increasingly synonymous with modern life – presenting a unique opportunity to deploy learning content straight to a user’s pocket wherever they may be. By understanding these ‘mobile moments’, we have the opportunity to form the framework for including mobile applications into wider learning strategy. Rather than looking to deploy full learning content to mobile, a more effective proposition is to focus Apps on learning reinforcement using microbites of engaging content – short videos, polls, quizzes, check-lists – with simple gamification elements, nudges and prompts to encourage regular revisits.

Apps then become a key element in a blended solution. Whilst a person might still be expected to complete a mandatory 30-minute course on a particular subject, the added functionality of an App means that we’re now able to add in extra layers to the learning experience.

My Learning Lounge App from Unicorn

When we start to reimagine learning as non-linear, we open up opportunities to draw in other psychological principles: whether the challenge and reward balance; social collaboration and knowledge sharing, or ‘just in time’ content that gives users the ability to reference bitesized supplementary learning content for reference in everyday situations. As products of modern society, we are already part-programmed to rely on Apps and other forms of mobile interactions in our day-to-day lives –social networking, news, or even the simple use of a fitness or alarm App. If learning and development professionals can leverage mobile technology as a powerful additional channel through which to deliver timely, relevant learning content, then we are already going some way towards combatting the forgetting curve and making sure that learning sticks.

Our partnership with world class games studio, Amuzo, means that we are already seeing the benefits of extrapolating the ‘sticky’ elements of game and app design into wider learning programmes. Once the underpinning psychological principles involved in gaming are understood, the potential for the scope and context of their application is limitless. Read more about apps in learning here.

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About abipearsunicorn

Marketing Manager at Unicorn Training Group

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