In reading more about the spacing effect, I found some interesting research on incidental learning, which maps more closely on how I learn best and how I enjoy learning.

“For cued-memory tasks (e.g. recognition memory, frequency estimation tasks), which rely more on item information and less on contextual information, Greene (1989) proposed that the spacing effect is due to the deficient processing of the second occurrence of a massed item. This deficient processing is due to the increased amount of voluntary rehearsal of spaced items. This account is supported by findings that the spacing effect is not found when items are studied through incidental learning.” — Wikipedia on the spacing effect

“Incidental learning is unintentional or unplanned learning that results from other activities. It occurs often in the workplace and when using computers, in the process of completing tasks (Baskett 1993; Cahoon 1995). It happens in many ways: through observation, repetition, social interaction, and problem solving (Cahoon 1995; Rogers 1997); from implicit meanings in classroom or workplace policies or expectations (Leroux and Lafleur 1995); by watching or talking to colleagues or experts about tasks (van Tillaart et al. 1998); from mistakes, assumptions, beliefs, and attributions (Cseh, Watkins, and Marsick 1999); or from being forced to accept or adapt to situations (English 1999). This “natural” way of learning (Rogers 1997) has characteristics of what is considered most effective in formal learning situations: it is situated, contextual, and social.” — Sandra Kerka (2000)

I find that I learn best when I provide myself the opportunity to see something from different perspectives and in different settings. I don’t memorize bash commands, I use them on the command line and in scripts until I know them without thinking. Neither do I memorize vocabulary when I learn a language, I learn to say it, write it, see an object and think of it, use it in a sentence or in a song.

By blogging about the “spacing effect,” I incidentally learned about incidental learning. Blogging gives me a framework to dig into a topic, as I seek primary sources or at least URL references. Understanding an idea well enough to write about it, even for a short blog post, means that I need to think about it from a few perspectives.

Frete (2002:92:93) quoting Roger Schank (also via edutechwiki) writes: “The trick is not to teach the facts at all, but rather to have the facts be along the way to getting to something the student naturally wanted to know in the first place. Using the Acquisition Hypothesis, we assume that how one learns a fact is as important as what fact one learns. Thus we should have students learn facts while engaged in a process similar to the one in which they will use the facts. We should use students’ natural interest so they come across such facts incidentally, in the course of pursuing their interests.”

Of course, the problem is that sometimes you need a thousand small fact building blocks to get to the point of what you want to learn. I’d like to learn Chinese, but I can’t get past learning thousands of vocabulary words. However, I’m fascinated with etymology and I am an artist. I’ve been looking for a book or multimedia Chinese language instruction that will teach groups of words together where the Chinese characters have base characters in common and still tell me what the spoken words are in Mandarin. However, I haven’t found that yet, so all I can say is “How are you?” which I use as a sort of PTA parlor trick amongst families who speak far more English than I do Chinese.

I think that the more connections we establish between memories, the more we remember. Nonetheless, there is still a place for memorization when seeking to gain entry into a new field or new language. When we can’t provide enough opportunities for incidental learning at the pace we want to learn, tools like SuperMemo and Mnemosyne can work to augment that learning.

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