(By Dr. Natalie McKnight)
I used spaced repetition (SR) happily for years without realizing it. By the time I first heard the term from Matt Trevithick, who drew an intriguing diagram of the process on a napkin at a Boston University awards dinner, I was already an unknowing convert having successfully used SR with the Pimsleur system to strengthen my French and learn basic conversational Korean and Arabic. I’d used a range of language learning systems previously, from traditional classes to self-study methods using a variety of audio tapes, books, computer programs, etc. Everything worked a little; nothing worked well. And then Pimsleur. And then I learned why.
Spacing the repetition of new words, concepts, and structures and interleaving new material with old material truly does build long-term memory in a way that massed repetition (i.e. cramming) simply cannot do. And yet massed repetition is still the norm for students studying in K-12 schools as well as colleges and universities. And we all know that the cramming students do to prepare for exams leads predominantly to short term memories that quickly get dumped to make way for more short term memories which also get dumped. So pervasive is this frustrating pattern that I simply cannot understand why more people have not migrated to spaced repetition when it’s been around for over 100 years and many reputable studies have demonstrated its effectiveness. Matt Trevithick created the Spaced Repetition Foundation to disrupt the traditional and futile learning patterns we’ve all witnessed and to get the word out about a more effective technique. He invited Alex Strick van Linschoten to join him as Alex was the one who introduced Matt to SR, and he invited me along for the ride, knowing that I too was a true believer, and an educator interested in improving learning.
Why does memorization have such a bad reputation?
We (the Spaced Repetition Foundation) have had numerous conversations with academics who dismiss SR as being ‘only’ about memorization, as if memorizing was a rudimentary and inessential process and beneath their notice. In their minds, memorization is lower-level learning and seems disconnected somehow from higher learning, such as critical and creative thinking. They root their assumptions in Bloom’s Taxonomy (and we have had Bloom’s Taxonomy spouted to us ad nauseum). For those of you unfamiliar with the taxonomy, in 1956 Benjamin Bloom published an approach to classifying learning that has “Knowledge/Remembering” at the lowest level and “Evaluation” as the highest level, the apex of the taxonomy’s triangle. Cognitive psychologists have since offered revisions to Bloom’s rather rigid and hierarchical taxonomy, and educational researchers increasingly embrace a more complex and recursive understanding of learning. But Bloom still has many die-hard fans quick to brush off memorizing things as lower-level learning. And these dismissive responses are as over-simplistic as the taxonomy itself. They suggest an either/or fallacy in which one can strive either for memory OR for critical thinking but not both, when in fact you can’t really engage in good critical thinking without a good memory of facts and concepts from which to draw connections, comparisons, and derive inferences.
The authors of Make it Stick (Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel) make this point very persuasively when they describe a pilot dealing with a drop of oil pressure in one engine, and the range of information he needs to remember to find a creative solution to the problem:
The pilot ran a mental checklist, figuring his options. If he let the oil pressure get too low he risked the engine’s seizing up. How much further could he fly before shutting it down? What would happen when he did? . . . . He reviewed the tolerances he’d memorized for the Cessna 401. Loaded, the best you could do on one engine was slow your descent. But he had a light load, and he’d burned through most of his fuel. So he shut down the ailing engine, feathered the prop to reduce drag, increased power on the left, flew with opposite rudder, and limped another ten miles toward his intended stop. There, he made his approach in a wide left-hand turn, for the simple but critical reason that without power on the right side it was only from a left-hand turn that he still had the lift needed to level out for a touchdown. (1-2)
The authors conclude that the pilot’s thinking in this situation epitomizes what they mean by learning: “we mean acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities” (2). No one loves Google-searching more than I do, but sometimes a Google search just won’t do the trick. Sometimes, you just need to remember things.