+ Improve Long-Term Retention By Spacing Out Lessons

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A study reported in November’s issue of Psychological Science states that proper spacing of lessons can dramatically enhance learning.

And larger gaps between study sessions result in a better recall of facts.

Conversely — no surprise — cramming (whether it’s for a math test or trying to learn Spanish for a business trip) is not effective in the long haul.

Hal Pashler and John Wixted, professors of psychology at UC San Diego, led the study, which has implications for education.

They write, “it appears no longer premature for psychologists to offer some rough practical guidelines to those who wish to use study time in the most efficient way possible to promote long-term retention.”

In three sessions, more than 1,000 subjects first learned a set of obscure but true facts (Norway consumes the most spicy Mexican food; Rudyard Kipling invented snow golf).   The second sessions were a review of the same facts.  The time between sessions ranged from several minutes to several months.  Study time was held constant in all the conditions.  After some further delay, up to one year, subjects were then tested.

When the interval between the second session and the test was increased, memory got worse — reflecting the familiar curve of forgetting.  The interesting finding, however, was that increasing the time between the study sessions reduced the rate of forgetting.

This reduction in forgetting was very large — sometimes increasing the likelihood that information would be recalled in the final session by 50 percent.

Pashler, who heads the Attention and Perception Lab at UCSD, says “The finding that greater spacing between study sessions can enhance later memory was expected, given prior research going back over a century.  The results of our study revealed a number of new facts that were not known, however.

“First, the study used much longer time intervals than in prior research, and it turned out that effects were larger than those seen in earlier studies using much shorter time periods.  Second, the results showed that there is an optimal value for the delay between the initial study and the final test, and that this optimal delay varies with the final retention interval: the longer the final retention interval, the longer the optimum delay between study and review.”

The results suggest that the optimal amount of time over which learning should take place depends upon how long the information needs to be retained.  According to Pashler, “If you want to remember information for just a week, it is probably best if study sessions are spaced out over a day or two.  On the other hand, if you want to remember information for a year, it is best for learning to be spaced out over about a month.”

 He extrapolates from the results.  “It seems plausible that whenever the goal is for someone to remember information over a lifetime, it is probably best for them to be re-exposed to it over a number of years.”

The implication is, he says, that instruction that packs a lot of learning into a short period is likely to be extremely inefficient, at least for remembering factual information.

The results also support the use of software designed to provide spaced review, such as the open-source Mnemosyne Project, says Pashler.

The study was funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Institute of Education Sciences, US Department of Education.  Coauthors were Nicholas Cepeda of NY University and UCSD, Doug Rohrer of the University of South Florida, and Edward Vul of UCSD and MIT.

source: online Science Daily article on 11/11/08; no byline (“adapted from materials provided by University of California San Diego.”

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