Research of Indeterminate Origin

I saw a line graph the other day that showed learning decay over time. The research was credited to something called the American Research Institute–not a research body I was familiar with but, hey, interesting research is interesting.

The graph, which looked like this:


raised all sorts of questions in my head. What was the learning event? How was it designed? What was the expertise level of the participants? What was the nature of the skills taught? What age?

So I did some digging. And, as far as I can tell, the original research doesn’t exist. Often cited in infographics and books, but never in research journals, I imagine that at some point someone either overgeneralized from some real study (perhaps casually credited to “an American research institution”) or made up to make a directionally correct point in a particular context.

My guess is that everything can be traced back to this:


Looks eerily similar, doesn’t it? The numbers have drifted a little, but that’s what you’d expect from a few rounds of internet telephone.

In any case, the original study was about people trying to memorize lists of arbitrary words–hardly a good analog (I hope) of what goes on in most classrooms. So, interesting, and important, but a big leap to conclude that classroom knowledge will reliably decay at a certain rate. (In any case, I believe the most compelling work done with learning decay has been in the context of spaced learning.)

This sort of thing–propagating research of indeterminate or suspect origin–really bugs me. That said, if I’m wrong and the Research Institute of America really has done and published this research, please comment below to help set the record straight.


3 thoughts on “Research of Indeterminate Origin

  1. Rob Foshay

    ARI is real, but they are mostly known for their federally-funded studies of social programs such as welfare interventions. Recently they have entered the state standardized test delivery market, which is converting to computer-based administration. Typically their perspective uses an economics framework. While they have done studies in education, and even in ed tech, their work has been criticized by ed researchers (including ed tech researchers) for failing to take into consideration the complexities of an education environment (same applies to training). For an example of this kind of controversy (not necessarily ARI-specific), have a look at the studies of teacher value-added studies. The early studies (by economists) just did conventional economic modeling of value added on state test scores, to see how much value teachers added to test score changes. This led to calls for teacher incentive pay for test score changes. When ed researchers got into the game, the story got much more complex, and early simplistic claims were largely discredited (at least, as I read the literature). Of course, one can’t rule out academic turf wars between the economists and the ed researchers….

  2. Rob Foshay

    BTW, my new favorite book discredits the whole learning/forgetting curve thing:
    deBruyckere, P., Kirschner, P., Holshof, C. (2015) Urban Myths about Learning and Education. New York: Academic Press

    As well as other chestnuts, such as learning style, Dale’s Cone of Experience, problem-based/experiential/inquiry learning, etc. etc.


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