22nd December 2010

Neon Elephant Award Announcement

Dr. Will Thalheimer, President of Work-Learning Research, announces the winner of the 2010 Neon Elephant Award, given this year to Richard Clark for his many years in leading the workplace learning-and-performance field by bridging the gap between academic research and practical application.

Click here to learn more about the Neon Elephant Award…

2010 Award Winner – Richard E. Clark

Richard E. Clark is Professor Of Educational Psychology and Technology at the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. He is also director of the Center for Cognitive Technology. Richard Clark is currently focusing on the design and practical application of research to the areas of complex learning, performance motivation and the use of technology in instruction. He teaches courses in adult learning theory, motivation research, and instructional design.

His most recent books include:  

  • Handling Complexity in Learning Environments: Theory and Research
    (2006, Elsevier, with Jan Elen;  
  • Turning Research Into Results: A Guide to Selecting the Right Performance Solutions
    (2002, CEP Press, with Fred Estes) which received the 2003 International Society for Performance Improvement Award of Excellence and
  • Learning from Media: Arguments, Analysis and Evidence
    (2001, Information Age Publishers).

In 2002, he won the Thomas F. Gilbert distinguished professional achievement award from the International Society of Performance Improvement (ISPI) and in 2003 he received the Socrates award for excellence in teaching in the Rossier School of Education. He is an elected Fellow of the American Psychological Association (Division 15, Educational Psychology), a Fellow in the Association of Applied Psychology and a Founding Fellow of the American Psychological Society.

Richard Clark is honored this year for (1) his lifetime of research and (2) for his exhaustive efforts over the years in bringing research to practice (especially as represented in his association with ISPI and his book (Turning Research Into Results – A Guide to Selecting the Right Performance Solutions )

Dick’s 1983 research review of media effects has become a classic.

Clark, R. E. (1983). Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research, 53(4), 445-459.

With this one article, Dr. Clark brought a profound insight to the forefront: When two different types of instructional media (for example Video and PowerPoint) use the same learning method (in other words present the learning material in the same way), learning results will be equivalent. In other words, it’s not the media that matters, it’s the learning methods that matter. Of course, when different media utilize different learning methods, then results will not be equivalent. Dick’s grand insight helped pave the way for hundreds of thousands of instructional designers (and other learning professionals) to have intelligent conversations about learning media. While people will still ask us, “is e-learning better than classroom instruction?” we now know to counter their simplistic query with wisdom about how learning really works.

In 2006, Richard Clark contributed to another classic research review.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86.

Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark (2006) argue that learners do better when instructional designers help provide appropriate guidance during instruction.This article launched a thousand ships—spurring research, discussion, and changes in practice.

And just last year, in 2009, Dr. Clark contributed to the enormously important book, Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure?, a book that pits researchers arguing each side of the issue to get to the bottom of this essential debate.

And here’s one little known fact: Dick worked as an Associate Producer for Television News and Public Affairs, WHYY-TV and WFIL-TV Philadelphia, PA back in 1964-1965, when I was a youngster in the Philadelphia area. So that I don’t flatter Dick too much, I’ll have to tell him that Gene London (a Philadelphia Mr. Rogers) was much higher on my radar back then. Still, I often wonder whether such practical experience is what allows some researchers to bridge the gap to practice, while other’s ideas lay dormant within the ivory tower.

For his lifetime of work and for his ability to speak practicality from the academy, we owe Richard Clark our most grateful thanks.

Click here to learn more about the Neon Elephant Award…

Note: Because researchers pride themselves on precision, let me note that yesterday was the actual winter solstice, when the Neon Elephant Award is typically released. Something came up.

Check out this article which claims:

"Science of mind is one of the most important intellectual developments in the last half century. It should not be obscured by neurobabble."

This might be a follow-up post to an earlier one I wrote that showed how easily we are fooled by scientific claims.


This blog post is excerpted from the full report, How Much Do People Forget? Click here to download the full report. You may also access the report—and many other reports—by going to my catalog page by clicking here.

Everybody Wants to Know—How Much Do People Forget?

For years, people have been asking me, “How much do people forget?” and I’ve told them, “It depends.” When I make this statement, most people scowl at me and walk away frustrated and unrequited. I also suspect that some of them think less of me—perhaps that I am just hiding my ignorance.

But I try. I try to explain the complexity of human learning. I explain that forgetting depends on many things, for example:

  • The type of material that is being learned
  • The learners’ prior knowledge
  • The learners’ motivation to learn
  • The power of the learning methods used
  • The contextual cues in the learning and remembering situations
  • The amount of time the learning has to be retained
  • The difficulty of the retention test
  • Etc.

More meaningful materials (like stories) tend to be easier to remember than less meaningful material (like nonsense syllables). More relevant concepts tend to be easier to remember than less relevant concepts. Learners who have more prior knowledge in a topic area are likely to be better able to remember new concepts learned in that area. More motivated learners are more likely to remember than less motivated learners. Learners who receive repetitions, retrieval practice, feedback, variety (and other potent learning methods) are more likely to remember than learners who do not receive such learning supports. Learners who are provided with learning and practice in the situations where they will be asked to remember the information will be better able to remember. Learners who are asked to retrieve information shortly after learning it will retrieve more than learners who are asked to retrieve information a long time after learning it.

I try to explain all this, but still people keep asking.

And then there are the statistics I keep hearing—that are passed around the learning field from person to person through the years as if they were immutable truths carved by Old Moses Ebbinghaus on granite stones. Here is some information so cited (as of December 2010):

  • People forget 40% of what they learned in 20 minutes and 77% of what they learned in six days (http://www.festo-didactic.co.uk/gb-en/news/forgetting-curve-its-up-to-you.htm?fbid=Z2IuZW4uNTUwLjE3LjE2LjM0Mzc).
  • People forget 90% after one month. (http://www.reneevations.com/management/ebbinghaus-curve/)
  • People forget 50-80% of what they’ve learned after one day and 97-98% after a month. (http://www.adm.uwaterloo.ca/infocs/study/curve.html)

Never mind that these immutable truths conflict with each other.

So, I will try one more time to convince the world that forgetting depends.

To accomplish this, I explored 14 research articles, examining 69 conditions to see how much forgetting occured, representing over 1,000 learners.

The following graph details the amount of forgetting for each of the 69 conditions:



This graph and the indepth analysis in the full article revealed four critical concepts in human learning—truths that every learning professional should deeply understand.

  1. The amount a learner will forget varies depending on many things. We as learning professionals will be more effective if we make decisions based on a deep understanding of how to minimize forgetting and enhance remembering.
  2. Rules-of-thumb that show people forgetting at some pre-defined rate are just plain false. In other words, learning gurus and earnest bloggers are wrong when they make blanket statements like, “People will forget 40% of what they learned within a day of learning it.”
  3. Learning interventions can produce profound improvements in long-term remembering. In other words, learning gurus are wrong when they say that training is not effective.
  4. Different learning methods produce widely different amounts of forgetting. We as learning professionals can be more effective if we take a research-based approach and utilize those learning methods that are most effective.

Telling Findings From the Research

  1. People in the reviewed experiments forgot from 0% to 94% of what they had learned. The bottom line is that forgetting varies widely.
  2. Even within a restricted time range, learners forgot at wildly differing rates. For example, in the 1-2 day range, learners forgot from 0 to 73%. Learners in the 2-8 year range forgot from 16% to 94%. The obvious conclusion here is that learning varies widely (and wildly) and cannot be predetermined (except perhaps by deities, of whom, I think, we have not even a few in the learning field). To be specific, when we hear statements like, “People will forget 60% of what they learned within 7 days,” we should ignore such advice and instead reflect on our own superiority and good looks until we are decidedly pleased with ourselves.
  3. Even when we looked at only one type of learning material, forgetting varied widely. For example, in Bahrick’s classic 1979 experiment where learners were learning English-Spanish word pairs, learners forgot from 12% to 63%. Even more remarkably, if we include those cases where learners actually remembered more on the second test than the first test, learners’ “forgetting” varied from -41% to 63%, a swing of 104 percentage points! Again, we must conclude that forgetting varies widely.
  4. Many of the experiments reviewed in this report showed clearly that learning methods matter. For example, in the Bahrick 1979 study, the best learning methods produced an average forgetting score of -29% forgetting, whereas the worst learning methods produced forgetting at 47%, a swing of 76% points. In Runquist’s 1983 study, the best learning method produced average forgetting at 34%, whereas all the other learning methods produced average forgetting of 78%. In Allen, Mahler, and Estes’ 1969 experiment, the learners given the best learning methods forgot an average of 2.3%, whereas the learners who got middling learning methods forgot an average of 14.3%, and learners given the worst learning methods forgot approximately 21.7%. The bottom line is that the learning methods we choose make all the difference!!

Check out the full report to learn more about the following:

  • What you should do as a learning professional (in light of these findings).
  • Whether the learning-curve notion still applies.
  • What wisdom each of the 14 research articles revealed.
  • The methodology used in the research.
  • The calculation of forgetting.