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When Repetition Does Not Improve Memory

May 8, 2010

I’ve been through many repetitions lately, what about you?. If you have, then this says repetitions should be all good, however, sometimes repetition is ineffective in promoting learning.

I’ll share with you Spaced Repetition practitioners, what most software vendors don’t usually tell you about the inefficiency of repetition or when all this adaptive learning won’t yield desired results, or in some circumstances, no learning at all.

I’m not denying that repetition is an important factor in learning, what I’m saying is that repetition under certain circumstances — that you should definitively avoid — it not only doesn’t help, but could even impair your recall.

Simply repeating an item over and over has little benefit for memory in the absence of attention or more elaborate processing of the material

The first example should start with a penny. Americans have seen this coin a great number of times, probably in the future we’ll only do cellphone transactions but for know, many of us have seen this coin enough times to know every detail on it, yet we only pay attention to its brownish color to differentiate it from other coins and thus that’s the most we remember about it. If I were to give you an old roman denarius, and tested you a week from now about details on it, you would be better a it than what you can currently remember about a penny (it would be the same with the currency of any other countries then USA). This proves that repetition in the absence of attention is strikingly ineffective in promoting learning.

A little more elaborated example of the ineffectiveness of repetition in the absence of attention is also illustrated when  items are memorized through rote rehearsal. In many experiments, where participants have to repeat items aloud over and over. When they are given an unexpected memory test on the rehearsed words, there is almost no relationship  between the number of overt rehearsals devoted to an item and later memory. Simply repeating an item over and over has little benefit for memory in the absence of attention or more elaborate processing of the material.

If an item has been presented in several contexts, it may become difficult to retrieve the occurrence that is being tested

Finally a some what curious effect is something very closely related to memorization of sets of elements. I’ll explain it using a medicine example, as I find this is a good explanation for why is it so difficult to learn list of symptoms for specific diseases.

Say you have to remember the most frequent symptoms in two diseases. Disease C most important symptoms being S1,S2,S3,S4 and disease D with its symptoms S3,S4,S5,S6.

If you study C symptoms before than D symptoms, then when asked to recall the most frequent symptoms in D, you’ll have more trouble recalling S3 and S4, because they’re also included in C.

Repetition may impair learning if memory is tested for only one occurrence. If an item has been presented in several contexts, it may become difficult to retrieve the occurrence that is being tested.

So while doing you repetitions, never repeat with out attention, and preferably do it with conscious elaboration (relating what you don’t know to what you already know).

As for the last inconvenience on not being able to recall symptoms of previous learned diseases, well I should probably keep the secret, but it all boils down to making you associations unique and finding relationships on the material you are memorizing, in this case it’s easy to remember that C and D, have common symptoms S3, S4 by the equivalence in the alphabet — you probably have already have guessed that out.

So avoid this two circumstances, and repeat over and over, while paying attention.

Source: John H. Byrne, Learning and Memory: A Comprehensive Reference. Volumen 2. 1st ed. (Academic Press, 2008). p.75.
4 Comments leave one →
  1. rmd permalink
    May 10, 2010 20:59

    I wanted to let you know that your blog post really helped me out. I’ve stepped up the “attention” part of my review (going over context, mnemonics, etc.) .

    Thanks for a terrific blog!

    • gersapa permalink*
      May 14, 2010 08:06

      thank you for the feedback, is good to know what reader enjoy most and what they don’t. I’m happy to motivate people, while learning at the same time.

  2. RDamian permalink
    June 7, 2010 10:37

    Very nice blog. I have been a Supermemo user for about 2 years.

    You concept map of the “20 rules” is simply fabulous! It is going up on my wall shortly.

    • gersapa permalink*
      June 14, 2010 14:35

      Thanks Damian, for me this is the third year on using SuperMemo consistently.

      I’m happy that you find the mindmap useful and hope it helps you out formulate knowledge more effectively . I’ll try to keep up the blog the best way I can, and I’m always open to recommendations, critics and ideas.

      If you haven’t already, you should join the supermemo yahoo group ( link on the blogroll of this blog)

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