Sometimes I repurpose entire articles on my website as a method of sharing. I just want to take yet another quick moment to explain that this is done all over social media (Facebook, Twitter Link sharing; Tumblr ‘reblogging’, and other new services ‘re-sharing’). For some reason, it feels plagiaristic to copy text from someone onto my site, so I make every effort to point to my sources. In fact, one of the links in the original article was broken, and this duplication has the correct link (to: “why do we forget?”).
I want to share this blog article with you because it directly relates to my experiences of learning language, and more specifically, I’ve found Memrise to be very useful (and when it works so well, it’s fun too). Memrise, as I’ve blogged about before, leverages current understanding of learning from cognitive psychology and language education; one of the most special ingredients to Memrise getting you to learn a lot of information () in a relatively short period of time, is imposing spaced repetition. They explain it better than I do, so without further ado…
Spacing effect explained in 2 minutes
by benwhately on 6 August 2012 – original article
The spacing effect is one of many bits of science that Memrise uses to make learning as effortless as possible.
Here’s a quick explanation of what it is.
What is the spacing effect? Let’s compare two ways of learning. The first, massed repetition, is when you are repeatedly presented with an item to learn, in a short space of time. The second, spaced repetition, is when you are repeatedly presented with an item, but the repetitions are spaced out. As it turns out, spaced repetition leads to significantly better learning than massed repetition. This is called the spacing effect. The point is that the timing of your reviews makes a substantial difference to the payoff that you get from each review. Spaced out is better than massed.
How was it discovered? This effect was originally discovered by the German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850 – 1909). Ebbinghaus created 2300 nonsense syllables and spent six years memorising random strings of them. He diligently tracked all aspects of his learning, and the spacing effect was one of the things that he discovered. The effect has since been replicated a number of times across a number of domains.
Why is the spacing effect the case? That the spacing effect is true is well established, but explaining why it is the case is still an open question.
One proposed explanation is that you are more likely to pay attention in spaced repetition than in massed repetition. If you are shown an item that you saw very recently (massed repetition), you are more likely to see it as familiar, redundant and boring, and so you’re not likely to give it your full attention. On the other hand, if you are shown an item that you last saw a while ago (spaced repetition), your memory of it will be weaker, and so your interest will likely be higher and you’re more likely to pay attention. Given that failure to pay attention is one of the main causes of forgetting, this seems like a plausible explanation of why spaced repetition is more effective than massed repetition.
A second proposed explanation of the spacing effect has to do with context. When talking about memories, context is the huge number of external and internal factors which are present when you form and when you subsequently review a memory. For example, your location when you review an item, the last time you ate, how anxious you feel — these are all part of your context. It’s been found that when you try to remember something, it is easier if your context is similar to what it was when you learned or reviewed it.
Now there is likely to be more fluctuation in context across reviews in spaced repetition than in massed repetition. This means that by using spaced repetition you associate more contexts with a memory and thus create more pathways from which to subsequently access it. The memory becomes robust because it is not tied to a particular context and so you can access it more easily.
Summary The spacing effect is the finding that spaced repetition generally leads to stronger memories than massed repetition. One explanation of this effect is that we pay more attention to material that we haven’t seen for some time, and a second explanation is that spaced repetition embeds an item in our minds across a larger number of contexts. The spacing effect is just one small part of the science behind how Memrise tries to make learning as easy as possible!
For a thorough literature review on the spacing effect and related issues see here.
We are just now on the cusp of learning things about the brain. As Dr. Anderson points out in this talk, if you are concerned about a cancer, doctors will run a slew of tests; if you are concerned about depression or ADHD, doctors will hand you a questionnaire. Yes, we know a lot about the very basic details of brains – something I saw first hand while working at the Vision Neuroscience lab at the University of Barcelona. Unfortunately, we are still putting together these most basic pieces. It sounds similar to our understanding of the universe: we have impressive image studies from Hubble and cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation studies that paint a fuzzy but complex picture; we also know a lot about the basic principles of the celestial bodies and forces in between, but we are a long way from understanding the sum of these parts.
Modern psychiatric drugs treat the chemistry of the whole brain, but neurobiologist David Anderson believes in a more nuanced view of how the brain functions. He illuminates new research that could lead to targeted psychiatric medications — that work better and avoid side effects. How’s he doing it? For a start, by making a bunch of fruit flies angry.
Watch this video on TED.com
“How is emotional behavior encoded in the brain? And what parts of the brain are affected by depression, ADHD and anxiety? This is what neurobiologist David Anderson researches in his lab at the California Institute for Technology by studying the brains of lab mice and fruit flies. By looking at how neural circuits give rise to emotions, Anderson hopes to advance a more nuanced view of psychiatric disorders — that they aren’t the result of a simple “chemical imbalance,” but of a chemical imbalance at a specific site that has a specific emotional consequences. By researching these cause-and-effect relationships, Anderson hopes to pave the way for the development of new treatments for psychiatric disorders that are far more targeted and have far fewer side effects.”