By Dr. Natalie McKnight
I am always on the hunt for new uses of spaced repetition (SR) and also for new users of SR, particularly in my own backyard at Boston University (BU). So I was delighted when I came across an article published by BU’s very own Dr. Mieke Verfaellie that discusses spaced repetition in relation to massed repetition and long study presentation in research on patients with memory disorders. Dr. Verfaellie is a Senior Research Career Scientist at VA Boston Healthcare System and Professor of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, and she is also Director of the Memory Disorders Research Center. In the paper, “Benefits of Immediate Repetition Versus Long Study Presentation on Memory in Amnesia,” published in Neuropsychology (2010, Vol. 24, No. 4, 457–464), Dr. Verfaellie and co-authors Karen F. LaRocque and Suparna Rajaram establish that “like individuals with intact memory, patients with selective amnesia show improved recognition memory following spaced repetition (Cermak, Verfaellie, Lanzoni, Mather, & Chase, 1996; Hillary et al., 2003; Verfaellie, Rajaram, Fossum, & Williams, 2008) and similar findings have been obtained in patients with severe memory impairments in the context of traumatic brain injury (Hillary et al., 2003) and Alzheimer’s disease (Moulin,Perfect, & Jones, 2000).” While the main focus of the article is not spaced repetition, the statement above and the conclusions drawn at the end (i.e. that further studies should be done comparing spaced repetition vs. massed and long study presentation) indicated to me that I should approach Dr. Verfaellie for an interview. She graciously accepted.
Natalie: How and when did you first learn about spaced repetition?
Dr. Verfaellie: The use of SR is grounded in the spacing effect, a very well established phenomenon in the study of memory that is typically covered in undergraduate memory textbooks. The spacing effect refers to the fact that information is remembered better when repetition and review of the material is spaced out over time rather than when it occurs in close succession.
Natalie: Please describe for a general audience the roll of SR in your ongoing research?
Dr. Verfaellie: My interest in SR arose from working with patients with severe memory impairment (amnesia). One of the main ways to boost memory in patients with amnesia is to repeat information multiple times. But little was known about which type of repetition is most beneficial. It turns out that patients with memory disorders, like people with intact memory, learn best when to-be-learned information is spaced.
Natalie: Have you used SR for your personal learning (languages, etc.)? If so, have you used any apps or other digital tools that incorporate SR (such as Anki, Duolingo, etc.)?
Dr. Verfaellie: I have not used any particular apps or digital tools that incorporate SR. However, in everyday life, I try to incorporate the principle of spaced learning whenever I can. For instance, when introduced to someone in a social setting whose name I want to remember, I try at various points in the conversation to use their name, or to think about it mentally as the conversation unfolds and subsequently, as I think back on the conversation. Learning names can be challenging. Spaced repetition is helpful because it allows you to encode the name more than once and link it to different parts of the conversation. This provides more cues to later retrieve the name.
Natalie: Do you think SR could or should be used more in K-12 classes? Or in higher ed? Why do you think it hasn’t caught on more in educational circles?
Dr. Verfaellie: I think SR can benefit learning at all levels of education. For a long time, the effects of SR were studied primarily in laboratory settings, where the to-be-remembered information is very simple (e.g., remembering a series of words or pictures). It was unclear, therefore, whether findings would generalize to classroom learning. But more recently, there have been studies in real-world educational settings using actual course content that clearly show how spaced repetition improves learning of complex information. It is particularly useful when we need to be able to use the information flexibly in different situations. Spaced repetition encourages learning of the same content in different contexts. By doing so, students are better able to recognize its broad applications.
I think one of the obstacles to implementing SR in the classroom is that teaching materials are often not organized in such a way as to promote spaced learning. But even relatively small changes, for instance, in how homework is organized – mixing material related to different topics in assignments rather than having a single assignment focus solely on one topic – can have significant impact.
Natalie: Are there any references you’d like to cite to your own publications or those of others?
Dr. Verfaellie: A good overview of considerations regarding SR in education:
SHK Kang, Spaced repetition promotes efficient and effective learning: Policy implications for instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences 2016, Vol. 3(1) 12–19.
Natalie: Thanks so much, Dr. Verfaellie--you’ve been very helpful! For our readers’ convenience, here is the abstract of the spaced repetition article Dr. Verfaellie recommends above:
Concern that students in the United States are less proficient in mathematics, science, and reading than their peers in other countries has led some to question whether American students spend enough time in school. Instead of debating the amount of time that should be spent in school (and on schoolwork), this article addresses how the available instructional time might be optimally utilized via the scheduling of review or practice. Hundreds of studies in cognitive and educational psychology have demonstrated that spacing out repeated encounters with the material over time produces superior long-term learning, compared with repetitions that are massed together. Also, incorporating tests into spaced practice amplifies the benefits. Spaced review or practice enhances diverse forms of learning, including memory, problem solving, and generalization to new situations. Spaced practice is a feasible and cost-effective way to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of learning, and has tremendous potential to improve educational outcomes. The article also discusses barriers to adopting spaced practice, recent developments, and their possible implications.