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Forgetting and the Learning Curve: A Laboratory Study


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  • Charles D. Bailey

    (The Florida State University, College of Business, Tallahassee, Florida 32306-1042)

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    The industrial learning curve is widely used to predict costs and labor requirements wherever learning is taking place. Little is known, however, about the reverse of this process: the forgetting that occurs during production interruptions. The ability to estimate cost increases due to forgetting would be useful for economic lot size determinations, bidding on repeat orders, estimating the cost of strikes, and so on. Empirical studies apparently have not been published. Field data are difficult to obtain and easily confounded by extraneous variables. Thus a laboratory experiment was undertaken to test selected variables that should (or should not) affect forgetting. A review of relevant psychological literature reveals two key findings: (1) Forgetting may be negligible for "continuous control" tasks but considerable for "procedural" tasks. Bicycle riding is representative of continuous control, while operating a computer is clearly procedural. (2) Forgetting is a function of the amount learned and the passage of time, not of the learning rate or other variables. The experiment employed paid subjects who worked between four and eight hours to learn both a procedural task and a continuous control task (assembling and disassembling a mechanical apparatus). Each subject returned at an assigned time, up to 114 days later, and repeated the task for about four hours. Thirty-one of 35 subjects produced usable data. For purposes of the study, "forgetting" was defined as the excess of actual time over learning-curve-predicted time, summed over the first four trials after the interruption. "Amount learned" was defined as the achieved reduction in time-per-unit before interruption. As hypothesized, forgetting was a function of amount learned and elapsed time, with 71 percent of the variance being thereby explained in a regression equation. Forgetting rate does not appear to be related to learning rate, contrary to conventional wisdom in the learning curve literature. Additional findings are (1) that the relearning rate is not correlated with the learning rate, but may be related to skill factors and the degree of original learning; (2) that subjects have poor insight into their memory states; and (3) that, within the specific task, learning rate is highly correlated with the time taken to complete the first unit. Further research is indicated to investigate whether the forgetting rate may be constant, and therefore applicable across broad classifications of tasks. The determinants of relearning also are a suggested area of investigation. The results of this study apply to individual learning curves, and questions remain concerning the aggregation of individual performance into group performance.

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    Bibliographic Info

    Article provided by INFORMS in its journal Management Science.

    Volume (Year): 35 (1989)
    Issue (Month): 3 (March)
    Pages: 340-352

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    Handle: RePEc:inm:ormnsc:v:35:y:1989:i:3:p:340-352

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    Keywords: industrial learning curve; interruption; motor skills;


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    Cited by:
    1. C. Lanier Benkard, 2000. "Learning and Forgetting: The Dynamics of Aircraft Production," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 90(4), pages 1034-1054, September.
    2. Plaza, Malgorzata & Rohlf, Katrin, 2008. "Learning and performance in ERP implementation projects: A learning-curve model for analyzing and managing consulting costs," International Journal of Production Economics, Elsevier, vol. 115(1), pages 72-85, September.
    3. Pierre-Xavier Meschi & Emmanuel Métais, 2007. "Expérience, oubli organisationnel et motifs de désinvestissement des acquisitions internationales:le cas des acquisitions françaises aux États-Unis (1988-2004)," Revue Finance Contrôle Stratégie,, vol. 10(4), pages 73-109, December.
    4. David Besanko & Ulrich Doraszelski, 2005. "Learning-by-Doing, Organizational Forgetting, and Industry Dynanmics," Computing in Economics and Finance 2005 236, Society for Computational Economics.
    5. Jaber, Mohamad Y. & Kher, Hemant V. & Davis, Darwin J., 2003. "Countering forgetting through training and deployment," International Journal of Production Economics, Elsevier, vol. 85(1), pages 33-46, July.
    6. Sumit Agarwal & John C Driscoll & Xavier Gabaix & David Laibson, 2008. "Learning in the Credit Card Market," Levine's Working Paper Archive 122247000000002028, David K. Levine.
    7. Grip Andries de, 2006. "Evaluating Human Capital Obsolescence," ROA Working Paper 001, Maastricht University, Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA).
    8. Jaber, Mohamad Y. & Sikstrom, Sverker, 2004. "A numerical comparison of three potential learning and forgetting models," International Journal of Production Economics, Elsevier, vol. 92(3), pages 281-294, December.
    9. Guy David & Tanguy Brachet, 2011. "On the Determinants of Organizational Forgetting," American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, American Economic Association, vol. 3(3), pages 100-123, August.
    10. Tonya Boone & Ram Ganeshan, 2008. "Knowledge acquisition and transfer among engineers: effects of network structure," Managerial and Decision Economics, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., vol. 29(5), pages 459-468.
    11. C. Lanier Benkard, 2000. "A Dynamic Analysis of the Market for Wide-Bodied Commercial Aircraft," NBER Working Papers 7710, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    12. Luca Colombo & Paola Labrecciosa, 2012. "Inter-firm knowledge diffusion, market power, and welfare," Journal of Evolutionary Economics, Springer, vol. 22(5), pages 1009-1027, November.
    13. Jason Hockenberry & Lorens Helmchen, 2014. "The Nature of Surgeon Human Capital Depreciation," NBER Working Papers 20017, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    14. Teyarachakul, Sunantha & Çömez, Doğan & Tarakci, Hakan, 2014. "Steady-state skill levels of workers in learning and forgetting environments: A dynamical system analysis," European Journal of Operational Research, Elsevier, vol. 232(1), pages 9-21.
    15. Mallick, Debasish N. & Mukhopadhyay, Samar K., 2001. "Local design vs. global design: A strategic business choice," European Journal of Operational Research, Elsevier, vol. 131(2), pages 389-399, June.
    16. C. Lanier Benkard, 1999. "Learning and Forgetting: The Dynamics of Aircraft Production," NBER Working Papers 7127, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    17. Lewis, Michael A. & Maylor, Harvey R., 2007. "Game playing and operations management education," International Journal of Production Economics, Elsevier, vol. 105(1), pages 134-149, January.
    18. Kher, Hemant V. & Malhotra, Manoj K. & Philipoom, Patrick R. & Fry, Timothy D., 1999. "Modeling simultaneous worker learning and forgetting in dual resource constrained systems," European Journal of Operational Research, Elsevier, vol. 115(1), pages 158-172, May.
    19. Inés P. Murillo, 2011. "Human capital obsolescence: some evidence for Spain," International Journal of Manpower, Emerald Group Publishing, vol. 32(4), pages 426-445, July.
    20. Morrison, J. Bradley, 2008. "Putting the learning curve in context," Journal of Business Research, Elsevier, vol. 61(11), pages 1182-1190, November.
    21. David Besanko & Ulrich Doraszelski & Yaroslav Kryukov & Mark Satterthwaite, 2008. "Learning-by-Doing, Organizational Forgetting, and Industry Dynamics," GSIA Working Papers 2009-E22, Carnegie Mellon University, Tepper School of Business.


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