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.

Gary Wolf writes in Wired a fascinating story of Piotr Wozniak’s quest for an effective method of learning that he has built into his SuperMemo software (via Chris Pettit, who recommends Mnemosyne, open source software based on the same algorithm which will run on a Mac). While I’m not sure I’m ready to dive into this technique, I loved reading about Wozniak’s passionately focused approach along with Wolf’s detailed background on scientists who have studied how we remember and forget.

In the late 1800s, a German scientist named Hermann Ebbinghaus studied memory by repeated experiments of how long it took to learn (and remember or forget) a series of nonsense words. “Ebbinghaus discovered many lawlike regularities of mental life. He was the first to draw a learning curve. Ebbinghaus showed that it’s possible to dramatically improve learning by correctly spacing practice sessions.” He called this phenomenon the spacing effect.

Robert and Elizabeth Bjork, professors of psychology, sought to understand the spacing effect more recently. They noted a “paradoxical tendency of older memories to become stronger with the passage of time, while more recent memories faded… Long-term memory, the Bjorks said, can be characterized by two components, which they named retrieval strength and storage strength. Retrieval strength measures how likely you are to recall something right now, how close it is to the surface of your mind. Storage strength measures how deeply the memory is rooted. Some memories may have high storage strength but low retrieval strength.”

“One of the problems is that the amount of storage strength you gain from practice is inversely correlated with the current retrieval strength. In other words, the harder you have to work to get the right answer, the more the answer is sealed in memory. Precisely those things that seem to signal we’re learning well — easy performance on drills, fluency during a lesson, even the subjective feeling that we know something — are misleading when it comes to predicting whether we will remember it in the future.”

“It is a common intuition,” Wozniak later wrote, “that with successive repetitions, knowledge should gradually become more durable and require less frequent review.” Wolf details Wozniak’s life study of how to remember effectively through refreshing that knowledge in the moment just before you are about to forget it. He adjusted this technique over many years, applying it to whatever he was studying: English vocabulary, facts from biology, and eventually anything he wanted to read. All of his early work was done on paper. It was in the day of the punch card, and lines to computer use at his university made automating the process impractical. Later he got a friend to encode his technique into Atari software and it is now available on Windows and Palm. SuperMemo allows you to enter a series of Flash Cards which it will present to you in intervals which are optimized for your learning.

At the end of the article, Gary Wolf writes, “philosopher William James once wrote that mental life is controlled by noticing. Climbing out of the sea and onto the windy beach, my skin purple and my mind in a reverie provoked by shock, I find myself thinking of a checklist Wozniak wrote a few years ago describing how to become a genius. His advice was straightforward yet strangely terrible: You must clarify your goals, gain knowledge through spaced repetition, preserve health, work steadily, minimize stress, refuse interruption, and never resist sleep when tired.”

Awesome advice, but either I’ll never be a genius or I’m taking a significantly different path :)