Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Spaced Repetition for Learning Concepts

Spaced Repetition for Learning Concepts:
A new neurobiological foundation for research and a computer-aided means of performing said research.
“Practice makes perfect.” “Use it or lose it.” These are expressions students hear often from parents and teachers attempting to persuade those students to do their homework or practice the piano regularly. It is common knowledge that reading or studying some topic once and then putting it away till test time is a recipe for failure. This is why teachers assign homework. Many even claim the test itself is a learning tool. But are these notions myths, based on centuries old traditions, or do they really work. If so, under what conditions? And how can study time be optimized so that students learn as much as possible in as little time as possible?
Ever since the late 1800s researchers have been trying to determine the answer to that question. Since that time. literally hundreds of studies have been performed verifying and reverifying a principle that has come to be known alternatively as “spaced repetition,” “distributed practice,” the “spacing effect,” and other similar terms. In this paper the term “spaced repetition” (SR) shall be used to name the phenomenon wherein study “items with repetitions that are separated by time or other events are remembered better than items with repetitions that are massed, occurring in immediate succession” (Toppino & Schneider, 1999, p. 1071).  For a phenomenon “many researchers would consider […] to be among the best established phenomena in the area of learning and memory (e.g.,Dempster, 1988)(Toppino & Schneider, 1999, p. 1071), it is interesting that “neither American classrooms nor American textbooks appear to implement spaced reviews in any systematic way” (Dempster, 1988, p. 627).
By ignoring this research, I believe American educators are missing out on an important learning tool. Further, I claim that SR (spaced repetition) can be applied to the learning of complicated concepts – what Sarah D. Mackay Austin (1921) called “logical memory” and Danielle Mazur (2003) called “abstract learning” – in addition to the simple rote memorization of what I call “factoids,” simple word-pair or question-answer associations. Though extensive research – over the past 130 years – has confirmed over and over again that SR works, researchers have had difficulty in developing a reliable theory as to why or how it works (Dempster, 1988, p. 633; Mazur, 2003, pp. 3, 5). In addition there are several legitimate criticisms as to the past and current methods of research as well as the practical application of spaced repetition in the classroom (Dempster, 1988, p. 627). One such criticism is – despite the vast volumes of research – very little of it has involved much more than the memorization of text. Only a very few studies have been conducted examining the potential of SR for learning concepts.  As memory is very likely an evolved trait (Nairne, Thompson, & Pandeirada, 2007, p. 271),  it just doesn’t make sense that there would have been evolutionary pressure to evolve memory for word-pairs but not for general concepts. In fact, it is reasonable to assume just the opposite. Therefore, I believe – as does Mazur (2003, p. 22) – that more research needs to be done in the application of SR for learning concepts.
By examining recent – and not so recent – research revealing how neurons in the brain actually form memories, I hope to provide a new foundation for SR research. Finally, by introducing a new computer-based system which can facilitate the learning of complex concepts while, at the same time, collecting the research data necessary to fine tune the theory and its application, I hope to finally bring 130 years of research to fruition and usher in a new era of education.