Integrating Spaced-Repetition in Ed-Tech

Girls playing Spanish Safari Photo by: Keli Garcia Allen
Girls playing Spanish Safari Photo by: Keli Garcia Allen

If you have ever been a student, then the ritual will be familiar to you; cram an entire semester’s worth of information into your brain over the course of one day (or one night if you're a real go-getter)), in order to spill it out on a piece of paper on test day, and the  never think about the information again. Because honestly, you couldn’t possibly be expected to remember all of that. It is certainly not the most effective way of long-term learning, but we sure rely on it. But, what if there’s a better way? What if we could work with our brain, instead of against it?

Hacking the Brain

The brain is an extremely complicated organ and although a lot of research has been done on it, there’s so much that is unknown. How memory works and how we learn is still largely a mystery, but the small glimpses that we have into our wonderful brains can be extremely useful if we can harness what we have learned. One of the things that we have learned is that the brain learns and commits to memory things that it deems most useful and more often used. We have also learned that spacing this information out over time is more useful than cramming it all in to our short-term memory.

The Science

Spacing out this information, or what scientists like to call the spacing effect, is actually one of the most reliable and replicable developments in experimental psychology. So, what are the specifics of this effect? It's actually pretty simple; for a given amount of time, repetitions that are spaced out have better learning outcomes than mass presentations (or cramming). According to researchers (Hitnzman, 1974; Meltown, 1970), presenting information in two spaced out  sessions is twice as effective as two cramming sessions. And these successes have been observed across many different subjects and learning environments.

How Does it Work? The technique involves increasing intervals of time between consecutive reviews of material previously  learned. Spaced repetition can be applied to any subject in which information needs to be committed to memory for an indefinite amount of time. It can be used to learn medical facts, historical facts, biology, vocabulary, etc. It is often associated with  learning vocabulary in a new language.

Spaced Repetition in Ed-Tech

There have been several systems developed around Spaced repetition, including the famous Pimsleur language learning system.This system, in which phrases are learned through audio instruction, relied on very short intervals of repetition: 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years.*  Although this method may seem old-school these days, it's important to not forget that audio was a revolutionary tech and that advancements in sound have increased the quality of these programs. Though old-hat, picking up a Pimsleur Method language CD is still a very effective form of language acquisition for adults. But don't freak out! You can still pick up a digital copy of them on iTunes.

The spaced repetition method can be applied to any subject by using several programs, such as Anki, fullrecall and supermemo, in which you can schedule your own flashcards. The software will present a question and the user attempts to recall the answer from memory, once answered, the software will schedule the questions for a later date; Most of the software out there will schedule them in intervals based on how you answered the question (correct or incorrect)  and on your rating of it (hard or easy).

The team I am a part of, Learn Safari, is currently developing an app to teach young children Spanish. We are using a modified version of spaced repetition. Because children learn language best through experiences, we have created a virtual world in which they can take part in the narrative. They are exposed to the vocabulary repeatedly in increasing intervals of time, but they interact with it in several different ways that are compatible with their intuitive way of learning language.

Child playing Spanish Safari Photo by: Keli Garcia Allen
Child playing Spanish Safari Photo by: Keli Garcia Allen

The Future of Education

Although spaced repetition has been around since the 1930s, the method has not been widely used in mainstream education. Being that it is such an effective method of learning, tech companies are using it to create new learning opportunities and products. As a teacher and an advocate of education, I hope to see more students taking advantage of this method and applying it for real and long-lasting learning results.  As ed-tech continues to revolutionize the static world of education, I think we will see an increasing number of innovations taking advantage of this brain "hack."

*(Pimsleur, Paul (February 1967). "A Memory Schedule". The Modern Language Journal (Blackwell Publishing) 51 (2): 73–75. doi:10.2307/321812. JSTOR321812)