• Researchers in cognitive psychology have always been in search of the perfect learning strategies for optimum results: approaches that optimise learning, enhance memory performance and reduce forgetting. [Pashler, Roher ,Cepeda, Carpenter]

The debate has been for a long time whether spreading your studying over a larger period of time will improve retention and recollection; and this is called spacing effect. The opposite, massed practice, consists of fewer, longer training sessions.

Today we will concentrate on the spacing effect of learning and its influence on memory.

Already in 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus came to the conclusion that final memory performance is improved if learning sessions are distributed in time rather than being massed into a single study episode.[ Cepeda, Pashler, Vul,et Al, 2006] It means that intense study the night before your exam ( and we've all done it ) won't be effective.

Since, a large number of experiments have taken place and the design has been roughly as follows: two learning sessions. In session 1, the material is learned for the first time and in session 2 the material is revisited. Afterwards comes a test session in which memory performance is assessed.

Lately, they thought of implementing more than two learning sessions and the question raised was how should these sessions be distributed, what should the time interval be ( such as days or weeks) in order to enhance long-term memory.

They came out with three different classes of learning schedule:

* Contracting: where the time interval between learning sessions ( ISI) drops across time.

i,e: day 1, day 12, day 13.

*Equal: where the ISI remains the same

i,e: day 1, day 7, day 13

* Expanding: where the ISI increases

i,e: day 1, day 2, day 13

One of these experiments was reported by Gerbier E, Koenig O et al and published in the

Q I Exp Psychol 2012;65(3): 514-25.

They wanted to assess how scheduling repeated studies of the same material over several days influenced the participants retention. They had three groups. They all studied the same material: a list of vocabulary pairs that were repeated according to one of three schedule.

Group 1 - Contracting schedule: days 1, 12, 13

Group 2 - Equal schedule: days 1, 7, 13

Group 3 - Expanding schedule: days 1, 2, 13

They were all assessed on the same day after day 13.

The expanding schedule group ( group 3) had a better performance than the other groups; they remembered the most word-pairs in the vocabulary list. The reason is because they had their second session of relearning only one day after, allowing the fragile memory trace to stabilise, that's what we call consolidation.

Contracting and equal schedules are more likely to result in forgetting because the memory traces are weak after initial learning.

What does this mean for us language learners?

We should plan better our learning sessions and take advantage of all the scientific results within our reach.

I recommend the following: Spend 10-15 minutes on your language course a few hours before bedtime. Revise the same section the following morning. Two weeks later have another go at revising it again and 1 month later. This will help you obtain the maximum benefits and get you fluent in no time.


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