Spaced learning – a better way to remember

September 16th, 2012

At Retenda, we have long known the power of the spacing effect to dramatically improve retention and recall. This effect first discovered over a century ago, describes the observation that humans and animals are able to remember things more effectively if learning is distributed over a long period of time rather than performed all at once. This new research conducted on mice from Japan (The Journal of Neuroscience. 31(24), 8958 – 8966) appears to uncover some of the neurological mechanisms that underpin it. Their results suggest that protein synthesis in the cerebellum plays a key role in memory consolidation.

This graphic shows protocols for massed (M) and spaced (S0.5h-S1d-2) learning. Mice were trained their optokinetic eye movements by 1 hour of concentrated protocol or 2.5 hours-8 days of spaced protocols.

This graphic shows protocols for massed (M) and spaced (S0.5h-S1d-2) learning. Mice were trained their optokinetic eye movements by 1 hour of concentrated protocol or 2.5 hours-8 days of spaced protocols.

The researchers developed a technique based around the phenomenon of horizontal optokinetic response (HOKR), a compensatory eye movement which can be used to quantify the effects of motor learning. Studying HOKR in mice, they found that the long-term effects of learning are strongly dependent on whether training is performed all at once (“massed training”), or in spaced intervals (“spaced training”): whereas gains incurred in massed training disappeared within 24 hours, those gained in spaced training were sustained longer.

By using antibiotics which inhibit protein synthesis it was found these proteins produced during training play a crucial role in the formation of long term memories. While further studies are clearly needed, not least in human subjects, it does appear that we ignoring the spacing effect in our training and learning design severely impairs the effectiveness of learning transfer. In a time of economic and social uncertainty, we should be making sure our education and training practices are as potent as possible. The relatively simple integration of spaced exposure and practice will make a big difference at a relatively modest cost.


Government report highlights ineffectual £275m training spend – poor transfer to blame

July 24th, 2012

The National Audit Office (PDF link) has published a report on the government’s skills requirements which criticise the heavy waste of investment and lack of data on both the costs and benefits of training and development.

As the Guardian reported:

  • The government estimated that expenditure on formal training in 2009-10 was £275m (around £547 per head). The NAO found this to be a significant underestimate as the figure did not include informal training or the value of the time of staff attending courses.
  • Only 48% of civil servants believed the learning and development they received in the last 12 months had helped them to be better at their job.
  • The report also showed 80% of civil servants considered there to be skills gaps in their organisations. Of these, 84% said difficulties in recruiting skilled staff was a significant contributing factor.
  • An overemphasis on classroom-based learning has led to insufficient attention given to on-the-job training.

A key finding was that the development of skills needed to be integrated into day-to-day operations and the role of managers in developing staff was not being sufficiently exploited.

At Retenda, we are working hard to provide a highly cost effective mechanism to reinforce any training undertaken and to embed that learning into the day to day work environment. By providing an automated schedule of key content reminders and action prompts, recall is greatly improved which in turn leads to greater confidence and competence. Far less waste and much higher learning transfer – a win for staff in terms of improved job satisfaction, a win for citizens in terms of improved services, and a big win for taxpayers in terms of reduced costs.


Memory Works Differently in the Age of Google

July 16th, 2012

The rise of Internet search engines like Google has changed the way our brain remembers information, according to research by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow published July 14 in Science.

Sparrow’s research reveals that we forget things we are confident we can find on the Internet. We are more likely to remember things we think are not available online. And we are better able to remember where to find something on the Internet than we are at remembering the information itself. This is believed to be the first research of its kind into the impact of search engines on human memory organization.

The research was carried out in four studies.

First, participants were asked to answer a series of difficult trivia questions. Then they were immediately tested to see if they had increased difficulty with a basic color naming task, which showed participants words in either blue or red. Their reaction time to search engine-related words, like Google and Yahoo, indicated that, after the difficult trivia questions, participants were thinking of Internet search engines as the way to find information.

Second, the trivia questions were turned into statements. Participants read the statements and were tested for their recall of them when they believed the statements had been saved—meaning accessible to them later as is the case with the Internet—or erased. Participants did not learn the information as well when they believed the information would be accessible, and performed worse on the memory test than participants who believed the information was erased.

Third, the same trivia statements were used to test memory of both the information itself and where the information could be found. Participants again believed that information either would be saved in general, saved in a specific spot, or erased. They recognized the statements which were erased more than the two categories which were saved.

Fourth, participants believed all trivia statements that they typed would be saved into one of five generic folders. When asked to recall the folder names, they did so at greater rates than they recalled the trivia statements themselves. A deeper analysis revealed that people do not necessarily remember where to find certain information when they remember what it was, and that they particularly tend to remember where to find information when they can’t remember the information itself.

According to Sparrow, a greater understanding of how our memory works in a world with search engines has the potential to change teaching and learning in all fields.

“Perhaps those who teach in any context, be they college professors, doctors or business leaders, will become increasingly focused on imparting greater understanding of ideas and ways of thinking, and less focused on memorization,” said Sparrow. “And perhaps those who learn will become less occupied with facts and more engaged in larger questions of understanding.”

At Retenda, we’re focused on helping trigger recall of key information at the right time and place to prompt higher levels of action and practice of new skills and knowledge. It’s ideal for encouraging learners to use tools such as search engines and your own online information sources to access further materials that help embed learning more deeply.

We love research like this – let us know if you have other papers you’d like to share with us.

Forgetting curves in long-term memory

July 1st, 2011

A study conducted at the University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy, has investigated the effect of forgetting and memory recall based on different types of learning task:

An experimental study with 20 normal healthy young adult subjects was performed to evaluate the interaction of type of memory tasks, type of learning modalities, and length of acquisition/recall interval. Four different tasks were employed (serial learning, paired learning, rote learning, and visuolinguistic transfer), some requiring a single trial learning modality others a multitrial learning modality. Acquisition/recall intervals were immediate, intermediate (3 min), and delayed. The experimental design allowed for the comparison of effects from five different delayed recall intervals (2, 8, 12, 24, and 48 hr). Results demonstrated a specific interaction on learning rates due to different ceiling effects for the different types of memory tasks. Forgetting rates, on the other hand, demonstrated a specific effect due to type of memory tasks and learning modalities only for differences between immediate and intermediate recall. These differences remained stable during the longer intervals and were not affected by length of interval. A multistage composition of long-term retention was suggested to explain these results, and a practical indication to build experimental procedures to study memory in the clinical field was evidenced.

Here at Retenda, we try to embed these research findings into our service in order to both improve memory retention in learners and to take the effort out of providing this sort of support for your learning community. We’re interested in all sorts of research so if you have any to share please let us know.

Flooding Your Brain’s Engine

June 19th, 2011

Psychology Today has an interesting article with some useful tips on coping with that increasingly familiar experience of overwhelming information load. Some of the factors that drive our ability to assimilate new information and learning are:

Our brains don’t like too much information

Research shows that although people like to have choices when making a decision, if they are given too many choices, they feel less happy about their ultimate decision and are less satisfied with the decision-making process itself. (2) One consumer study showed this dramatically. When supermarket customers were offered samples of 6 different types of jam, 30% of them purchased a jar of the jam. But when they were offered 24 different choices, only 3% ended up purchasing a jar.

Our working memory is limited

Even though we can store virtually limitless amounts in our long-term memory, we can only keep a small amount of information in focus at any given time. That is why we have to key in a new telephone number immediately, or save it, or write it down. Otherwise, it will be gone in a matter of seconds. We just can’t juggle dozens of ideas at the same time.

We learn better with spaced practice than with massed practice.

We perform better if we learn something in chunks with breaks in between than if we work without breaks for hours.  Our brains need some time to consolidate the information that comes in before we can use it effectively.

Retenda is designed to tackle these very issues to effortlessly support much more effective learning transfer. Not only does the learner seamlessly receive appropriate and timely reminders of the key learning content covered, from the teacher/trainer/facilitator’s perspective there is little administrative effort required.

Phew, we can all relax now…

Study better: Space it out and mix it up

May 17th, 2011

The failure to reinforce learning dramatically reduces the value of training or any event aimed at communicating new knowledge and skills. Both the New York Times and Psychology Today have written articles bringing this to wider attention. This is the very same effect that Retenda harnesses to improve learning effectiveness.

Psychology Today published an article detailing the benefits of spaced learning to improve recall and long term memory retention. It references three studies:

  • Flashcards. Study guides often recommend that student study vocabulary using small stacks of flashcards. But a recent study showed that it’s much more effective to study a large stacks of flashcards every day. Why? Because the more cards you have in your stack, the more time passes before you go through the stack and return to a card you’ve studied before–that is, larger stacks create more spacing.
  • Mixing problem sets: A study of geometry learning showed that people learn best when different topics are mixed together. Mixing problems means that you end up reviewing information you’ve studied before after a spaced interval. It also means that you can’t necessarily solve the next problem the same way you solved the last one – you have to figure out how to approach each problem.
  • Conceptual learning: In a study about art and cognition, participants were asked to learn the styles of various different painters. The paintings were presented either one artist at a time or all mixed up, skipping back and forth between artists. Mixing up the artists, and introducing a spacing effect, was found to be highly beneficial.

The New York Times ran an article saying we should “Forget what we know about study habits”. It reports on similar positive effects of spacing and mixing:

  • Instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention.
  • Studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing improves retention. Musicians have known this for years, and their practice sessions often include a mix of scales, musical pieces and rhythmic work. Many athletes, too, routinely mix their workouts with strength, speed and skill drills.

The article continues:

When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

No one knows for sure why. It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.

“The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” said Dr. Kornell, Psychologist at Williams College. “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”

By optimising the spacing interval to account for your specific content, context and learning environment, Retenda manages to take the hard work out of delivering these benefits to real world situations, in the classroom, in the training session and at the conference session.

Do let us know if you find further research or articles.

Mobile learning warning for schools – M-Posium

April 5th, 2011

Interesting report from Bob Harrison on MJO.

The “out of control” nature of mobile technology threatens to make education institutions like schools and colleges “irrelevant”, a top academic warned this week.

Speaking at the first Learnhigher M-Posium event, hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University and Liverpool Hope University’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, John Traxler, from the Learning Lab at the University of Wolverhampton, suggested that there is “a growing dichotomy and a growing problem “ as mobile learning is “out of control”.

“On the one hand schools, colleges and universities prescribe, procure, provide, and control institutional technology and hence in many respects constrain and define the nature of education and the interpretation of learning,” he said. “On the other hand, the majority of learners choose, use, own and understand a vast, but diverse range of personal technologies that allow them to create, store, and transmit information, images, resources and knowledge, and to connect to communities and each other and hence, to engage in learning.

“There is a risk that schools, colleges and universities will become irrelevant.”

While most commentators might not go quite so far, this issue has profound effects for schools, colleges and universities in general and new-build and re-modelled schools and colleges in particular. If John Traxler’s theories are correct, the whole approach to capital projects and the design of learning spaces needs to be re-examined, and his book, Mobile Learning: A Handbook for Educators and Trainers (Open & Flexible Learning), written with Agnes Kukulska-Hulme from the Open University, makes for an interesting read.

Full article here.

10% of students may have working memory problems

February 20th, 2011

A recent paper by Tracey Packiam Alloway PhD – Director of the Center for Memory and Learning in the Lifespan at the University of Stirling, UK – explores how working memory is at the heart of many childrens poor cognitive development and school achievement. Below are the key findings:

In screening of over 3000 school-aged students in mainstream schools, 1 in 10 was identified as having working memory difficulties. There were several key findings regarding their cognitive skills. The first is that the majority of them performed below age-expected levels in reading and mathematics. This suggests that low working memory skills constitute a high risk factor for educational underachievement for students. This corresponds with evidence that working memory impacts all areas of learning from kindergarten to college. It is a basic cognitive skill that we need to perform a variety of activities, and we use it in core subjects like reading and maths, as well as general topics like Art and Music. Crucially, this pattern of poor performance in learning outcomes remains even when students’ IQ is statistically accounted. This fits well with evidence suggesting that working memory is even more important to learning than other cognitive skills such as IQ. For example, in typically developing students, I found that their working memory skills, rather than IQ, at 5 years old were the best predictor of predictor of reading, spelling, and math outcomes six years later.

The next major finding from the studies of students with working memory difficulties is that teachers typically judged the students to be highly inattentive, and have short poor attention spans and high levels of distractibility. They were also commonly described as forgetting what they are currently doing and things they have learned, failing to remember instructions, and failing to complete tasks. In everyday classroom activities, they often made careless mistakes, particularly in writing, and had difficulty in solving problems. In contrast, relatively few of the students were judged to exhibit the high levels of hyperactive and impulsive behaviors.

The final key finding is that students with working memory difficulties take a much longer time to process information. They are unable to cope with timed activities and fast presentation of information. As a result, they often end up abandoning the activities all together out of frustration. One way to overcome this difficulty is to provide them with a shorter activity and to allow for more time during tests.

Alloway has also commented more generally on the importance of developing an effective working memory:

“Working memory is our brain’s Post-it note,” explains Alloway, who is director of Stirling’s centre for memory and learning in the lifespan.
“We use those little yellow slips of paper not only to jot down important information, but also to work with it, like when we use them to write down and cross out a to-do list. In the same way, working memory allows us to make mental scribbles of information we need to remember and think about.”
People use working memory to stay focused during a meeting, creatively solve a complex problem, respond to questions thoughtfully or recall the name of an important client when distracted at a meeting. Those who are better at remembering and working with new information do better in business, according to Alloway. Her recommendations include crosswords, Sudoku, doodling and brain training computer games, particularly Jungle Memory, which she said was “found to improve literacy and numeracy” in clinical trials.

We’d like Alloway’s thoughts on how Retenda can be used to provide valuable support for developing memory and learning effectiveness. We believe there are some significant benefits to be gained and crucially with minimal effort on the learner.