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Using the Science of Memorization (The Spacing Effect) May 19, 2008

Posted by federalist in Education, Human Markets, Uncategorized.

Wired magazine has a feature on the science of memorization.

In the late 1800s, a German scientist named Hermann Ebbinghaus … discovered many lawlike regularities of mental life. He was the first to draw a learning curve. Among his original observations was an account of a strange phenomenon that would drive his successors half batty for the next century: the spacing effect.

Ebbinghaus showed that it’s possible to dramatically improve learning by correctly spacing practice sessions. On one level, this finding is trivial; all students have been warned not to cram. But the efficiencies created by precise spacing are so large, and the improvement in performance so predictable, that from nearly the moment Ebbinghaus described the spacing effect, psychologists have been urging educators to use it to accelerate human progress. After all, there is a tremendous amount of material we might want to know. Time is short.

However, this technique never caught on. The spacing effect is “one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning,” the psychologist Frank Dempster wrote in 1988, at the beginning of a typically sad encomium published in American Psychologist under the title “The Spacing Effect: A Case Study in the Failure to Apply the Results of Psychological Research.” The sorrowful tone is not hard to understand. How would computer scientists feel if people continued to use slide rules for engineering calculations? What if, centuries after the invention of spectacles, people still dealt with nearsightedness by holding things closer to their eyes? Psychologists who studied the spacing effect thought they possessed a solution to a problem that had frustrated humankind since before written language: how to remember what’s been learned. But instead, the spacing effect became a reminder of the impotence of laboratory psychology.

Ebbinghaus published a monograph in 1885 called Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology.

Piotr Wozniak has been testing and developing a computer program called SuperMemo for twenty years to optimize the use of the spacing effect to learn. (This review recommends Mnemosyne as a more simple, user-friendly, and free program based on the same theory.) Based on Wozniak’s research it is evident that even the best efforts will permit a person to learn and retain only a few million things over the course of a lifetime.

  • Given your memory capacity, what will you commit to long-term memory?
  • Why hasn’t an open-source memorization store like Mnemosyne caught on in the education establishment?


1. A Few Facts About… The Spacing Effect « Language Fix - September 8, 2008

[…] used to create software to assist learning, as meantioned in this article from Wired magazine and here.  Before that it’s lack of application had frustrated social scientists, as mentioned in […]

2. federalist - January 16, 2009
3. federalist - May 1, 2009

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