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Repetition and Learning – misconceptions about effective studying (theeffortfuleducator.com)
135 points by raffaelSenn 58 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

I teach Sanskrit to adult enthusiasts. It is mind boggling how people think that they can learn a language by being a passive consumer - that I need to do all the talking while they just sit and listen and take notes. I repeatedly tell them you need to be a producer and not a mere consumer. Creating your own sentences forces you to actively recall what you have learnt and is going to be far more productive than reading what is written. (Though reading is important too in learning a new language.) Being a producer and "active recall" require both effort and time and people give up quickly. Only the tenacious ones remain and they are the ones who learn.

What I recall from learning language, just telling me that I should be active did not worked because I had no idea what sentences to produce. I needed concrete task from instructor to produce anything - including sentences in my own language.

I think the confusing part to many is that learning a language is actually learning several things and are as follows:

1. One has a to learn the physical skill to write different characters (some times). 2. Many times a language requires one to learn the physical skills of making different sounds and combinations of sounds with the mouth/tongue and throat. 3. One has to learn the skill of hearing and distinguishing words out of the amalgamation of them in the form of a sentence. 4. One has to learn the grammar of the language. 5. One has to associate the new words with the world around them; which would be vocabulary.

Most people think the last thing in this list is all they need to do and the rest will just happen - when it doesn't they get frustrated and give up. I think if they go into it knowing the different things they will need to learn and the different approaches to those skills that are best - we might have more successes.

This is how I have learnt various languages - by speaking while learning. However, Stephen Krashen's Input Hypothesis expounds that language acquisition occurs only during exposure to new language and not while speaking. Do people who give up learning a language still understand what is being spoken by the other person in that lang, even if they themselves may not be able to construct a sentence?

> However, Stephen Krashen's Input Hypothesis expounds that language acquisition occurs only during exposure to new language and not while speaking.

I think exposure and actively speaking are the wrong categories - your learn a language by using it to participate in a common experience with another human being. For this, you both have to use the same protocol, and at the beginning, you have to figure out this protocol using a simpler fallback feedback protocol. This is something I am currently realizing as a father of a one-year old. This involves of course exposure and speaking, but I strongly doubt that you could learn a language just by listening to it and re-producing the words. I expect this would only result in text/speech resembling GPT-2.

I also think that you can have a common experience without actively producing text or speech, for example by watching a movie / TV show were you want to follow the story and participate in the lives of the actors. In fact, I know many people who effortlessly learned a second language by watching foreign movies and TV shows for years.

Yes and no. I’m someone who took krashen to heart and learned almost exclusively though reading. What I’ve found is that it’s possible to understand everything as long as it’s written or spoken very slowly and clearly but this is a different thing to understanding the spoken language at a normal speaking pace. It’s too fast and at that speed often sound alone is not clear enough to distinguish words. For example if you took a recording and cropped the audio just before and after each word I think there will be many words you will not recognize out of context.

I think the way that we are able to process speech at that speed is that we essentially guess what words are coming next, which is really only possible if you’re able to construct the sentence yourself. If you stop a sentence at a random point a native speaker will be able to predict the kind of words that will come next, if not the exact words. Another bit of evidence for this theory is that if someone says something very unexpected and out of context we often won’t understand what they’ve said.

Now it’s possible that you could achieve this ability only through input and not through production but I believe that it will be much less efficient.

It depends on what one's goal is. If one's goal is to just be able to read and understand others speaking or comprehend written text, then yes, I think creating your own sentences is not that important and mere exposure can take you a long way. In fact, I would say 99.9% of people who "know Sanskrit" fall in this category. I have met people who hold Masters and Ph.Ds in Sanskrit and they can't hold a basic conversation in Sanskrit. On the other hand if one wants to be able to read, write and speak the language then you absolutely need to engage in producing content (verbal and written).

After multiple full semesters in junior high & high school, the things I remember pertained to what our teachers required us to do to navigate being in class. We needed to speak in the language we were learning to open our books, notebooks, go to the bathroom, etc. The rest is mostly forgotten. Later, in the hospitality business, I picked up more real spanish than I ever did in school.

Language is not a single skill. There are passive skills: reading and listening and active: writing and speaking. One can develop passive skills by being a (mostly) passive consumer. I've improved my speech comprehension a lot by listening to podcasts. It doesn't help me to speak, because it is a different (though somewhat related) skill.

Is it true according to Vedas the Hindu religious books sudras are forbidden to learn and hear them as it is written in Sanskrit. Do you have any recommendations of the English translation of the Vedas ?

No, it has nothing to do with Sanskrit.

They're not forbidden to learn the meaning of Vedas. That is universal to all, as evidenced by the Dharma-Butcher - a butcher by profession who solves all philosophical doubts of saints. And he did speak in Sanskrit to the Rishis.

What they're forbidden is to chant the Vedas with original incantation. Because those chants have the power to invoke deities who control the forces of nature itself.

This is no different from restricting access to firearms for the general public. While most citizens shouldn't operate them, they are entitled to the protection offered by others who wield them. And those who wield them must have extreme restraint.

Brahmins, are known for self-control, patience, begging for alms, vegetarianism, and study of scriptures. Atleast, that was the case until a few generations ago. Now, they've left their traditional professions and gone into the IT industry, so they too lost the qualities/restraint needed to be entrusted with Veda mantras.

> Brahmins, are known for self-control, patience, begging for alms

When one has self-control why should they beg ? Its contradictory ?

they SUBSIST on alms - meaning they're not supposed to earn a means of livelihood by themselves (like others do) - and that is precisely a result of them having self-control.

The scope of the Hindu Scriptures are vast. As such a proper guide is needed to help the enthusiast navigate them. I highly recommend Windows into the Infinite: A Guide to the Hindu Scriptures by Barbara Powell to every student.

Coming to The Vedas themselves, they are quite voluminous and make for a very dry reading. The classic english translations are the ones by Ralph T.H. Griffith. Recently Bibek Debroy has translated The Vedas into english though i believe it is highly abridged and simplified. This might make a good starting point.

The author doesn't seem to differentiate the different types of learning as they are defined in educational science: associative learning (think Pavlovs dogs salivating if the bell rings), instrumental learning (Skinners rats learning labyrinths for snacks), cognitive learning (grasping abstract concepts, like a "comment form", or "democracy"), and know-how, knowledge about processes, like driving a car, or successfully talking to a bank manager, or approaching a programming problem.

Rote repetition is indeed important for the first (and to a lesser degree the second) type of learning. These types of learning are what the famous forgetting curve experiments dealt with: aquiring non-sensical knowledge. It is mostly unneeded for cognitive learning, which usually happens by having those lightbulb moments when exposed to the concept. And learning about processes is done through practicing (which is different to rote repetition because it involves meaning, i.e. the topic makes sense).

It is mostly unneeded for cognitive learning, which usually happens by having those lightbulb moments when exposed to the concept.

Meaning? Spaced repetition still work there.

Let's use the concept "3D printer". Imagine time travelling 50 years into the past and wanting to get people to learn what that thing is. You would essentially show a single time how the plastic goes in, gets heated, and flows out in molten state, according to a pre-defined program.

Almost every human observer would have an instant lightbulb moment and would probably not forget this for years. The observing people would have instantly formed a mental model - the concept.

That works for the right level of novel concepts. But just because I understand the Taylor expansion of cosine doesn’t mean I will remember it.

Yes, absolutely. In many/most real world cases, different types of learning overlap (these themselves are only mental models, after all). In this case, the cognitive aspect would be the what and why, helping you to get why this exists, what problem this solves, and to how to find out whether the current problem at hand is a good case for an application of this knowledge. And if your mental model is precise enough (say if you have 2 decades of experience as a full-time mathematician), you'd probably be able to recreate the function as needed.

Everyone else still has to memorize the actual terms.

taylor of e goes something like 1 + x + x^/2! + x^3/3!...

Well if we look at cos and sin, we know that these correspond to e^x if x = i x So then it’s easy to plug that in to the expression for e and get e^{i x} = 1 + ix - x^2/2! - i x^3/3! ... Taking the imaginary part gives us sin, and taking the real gives us cos.

So all we have to remember really is the pattern for e and to put ix instead of x. e^(ix) = sum((1/n!) * (ix)^n)

This was the Aha! that I got from a professor in my bachelors. Of course there’s still like two or three things to remember, but it’s a whole lot easier to unpack from there than to memorize the expansion of cos

Oh, I don’t have problems deriving the Taylor expansion of anything. It’s just that when I need it my main focus is on something else. My productivity has increased a lot since I started putting those often used things in Anki so I used could use them without having to look them up or derive them every time.

Of course. Yeah, what I was trying to illustrate is that with enough contextual knowledge the amount of things one has to memorize becomes comparatively smaller. Basically if one learns and remembers Euler's Identity and the expansion of e^x = (x^n)/(n!), then you don't really need to memorize the trigonometric expansions.

Reading over it I guess that may have been your initial point.

I agree. Strong emotions cause memories to imprint deeply. I would argue that the "lightbulb moment" may use this effect.

Spaced repetition doesn't provide benefits for topics that require understanding (hard science) https://www.gwern.net/Spaced-repetition#subjects

I maybe out of my league here, but I think you are confusing conditioning, training, and learning.

I third option: I mistranslated. I studied this in German, and in the German literature conditioning and training are subsets of learning.

Edit: Wikpedia confirms at least associative learning and instrumental learning, though the latter seems to be more often called operant conditioning.

Repetition can be incredibly useful. I can't imagine memorizing vocabulary or simple facts (when was FOO born?) without repetition. Of course, actually using the facts (or vocab) makes them stick better. But use is also repetition.

Just last night, I needed skk a bit but I couldn't remember how it works. I open the tutorial, see a familiar pair of kanji, type にゅうりょく into my dictionary, and get the pair (入力) back. I don't speak Japanese but I memorized some words sometime over a decade ago. I'm pretty sure I've never used this information anywhere and I only remember due to repetition.

Of course, tfa makes a distinction between repetition and retrieval practice, but to me they are pretty much the same thing -- they go hand in hand. Does anyone actually ever just read a thing over and over again hoping that it sticks? Without (say) closing ones eyes or stopping before a sentence to test if you remember the answer before you spoil it? I don't know if I've ever studied anything that way! And I don't think that people who claim repetition is key to remembering are talking about passive repetition with zero effort to recall. They're talking about active repetition, practice, and it goes hand in hand with recall.

> Repetition can be incredibly useful. I can't imagine memorizing vocabulary or simple facts (when was FOO born?) without repetition. Of course, actually using the facts (or vocab) makes them stick better. But use is also repetition.

What exactly do you mean by repetition? If I'm memorizing vocabulary, repetition to me means recalling and writing the words down in some way (often according to some prompt or quiz). The repetition with this method works because of 1) recall strengthens the memory and 2) muscle memory of writing helps solidify it. But repetition by repeatedly reading? That simply doesn't work for me (and going by studies, it's a very poor strategy compared to retrieval/recall practice). Nobody who recommends retrieval practice says repetition by recall and producing it on paper (or however else) is a bad idea. Spaced repetition is also just a form of repetition. He doesn't demonize these forms of repetition.

Let's go back to what he said:

> One of these false beliefs is that repetition is the key to remembering; the more someone encounters material, the better the likelihood of retaining the information long-term. I can still remember, after receiving a test grade that I wasn’t thrilled with, believing that I would’ve done better if I’d just gone over the material more times.

Key words are "the more someone encounters material" (note the passiveness) and he emphasizes it with his own experience of thinking how he should've "gone over the material more often". It's really not that uncommon. I knew plenty of people in school and even in university whose only conception of learning was reading, re-reading and highlighting and maybe making notes. It was sub-optimal in so many ways. So to pretend that nobody does it ("Does anyone actually ever just read a thing over and over again hoping that it sticks?") seems a bit ignorant to me of how many people simply never learn good studying strategies.

Btw, found this while I was looking at research

https://www.apa.org/images/2016-06-psa-karpicke-fig2_tcm7-20... (Source: https://www.apa.org/science/about/psa/2016/06/learning-memor...)

> An emphasis on getting knowledge in memory shows up on surveys of students' learning strategies. In one survey (Karpicke, Butler & Roediger, 2009), college students were asked to list the strategies they use while studying and to rank-order the strategies. The results, shown in Figure 2, indicate that students' most frequent study strategy, by far, is repetitive reading of notes or textbooks. Active retrieval practice lagged far behind repetitive reading and other strategies (for a review of several learning strategies, see Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013). A wealth of research has shown that passive repetitive reading produces little or no benefit for learning (Callender & McDaniel, 2009). Yet not only was repetitive reading the most frequently listed strategy, it was also the strategy most often listed as students' number one choice, by a large margin.

> Does anyone actually ever just read a thing over and over again hoping that it sticks?

I think that's what he's saying, yes. He opens with that exact anecdote about himself: "I can still remember, after receiving a test grade that I wasn’t thrilled with, believing that I would’ve done better if I’d just gone over the material more times."

I think I agree with his final point (as you seem to do), but I think he doesn't communicate it very well. I was going to object to his penny example, saying that although I've seen probably tens of thousands of pennies, I've never been once been asked to pick out the real one: that particular neural pathway I've never used. (Also, it's likely if these were actual pieces of copper that I could pick up and look at, I'd have a better feeling for which one looked right.)

But in a sense, that is his point: What neural pathways are you using? Simply passively consuming material ("going over it") can make you think you've "got" it when you don't. Retrieving it exercises the "retrieval" pathway; so if what you're trying to do is pass an exam where retrieval of facts is an important factor, you should practice that.

But you can't stop there; even practicing retrieval can get boring quickly, so maybe you need to add in ways to make it more interesting, so that you can actually get more retrieval in.

And finally, sometimes retrieval isn't even what you want at all. I find this particularly when learning a language: that being good at flashcards doesn't translate well into being able to read or understand words in context. And reading a word in the same context over and over again quickly looses effectiveness too. If your goal is to be able to fluidly recognize a word in an unknown context, you need to actually see it in a lot of unknown contexts.

His thing mainly seem to be about making it hard though, which is a bit confusing to me.

funny, i noticed that if i dont want to know why FOO was born, i wont. so i spend time figuring out why i want to know when FOO was born. this makes things so much easier for me. im creative so i can always figure our a reason FOO was cool somehow. its like my brain needs to "stick around for a while" on a topic and create more connections to it. if i just repeat it, i dont remember it when i need to. specially under stress or if im annoyed.

While the thesis is interesting and while there is probably some truth to it, the argument doesn't seem fair to me...

Sure if you repeat endlessly a task which is not related to the objective, it may fail to prove successful (without much surprise). However, if I repetitively compare images of one correct coin and one incorrect coin, I am pretty sure that I would improve in some way, without putting so much effort in the process. If every day someone recalls me the position of the nearest fire extinguisher, I will certainly learn this information at some point, once again without much effort.

And this type of wrong arguments can be reversed against the author thesis. Try to learn a new programming language while doing a one armed handstand, the difficulty will be way higher, however I doubt that it will generally improve your learning pace. Does that mean that difficulty is not a key to remembering? Nope, only that it is not per se a sufficient condition to remembering.

This is difficult to express, but that difficulty inherent to my process of describing my perspective to you is a motivator for me doing so. And that's where difficulty/challenge as a component of knowledge acquisition is important.

We memorize and recall within the limbic system. That's the same system that also facilitates our emotional and physical responses to stimuli. And as I see it (keep in mind I'm not a neuroscientist), increasing emotional activity alongside the task increases the overall allocation of physical energy to the limbic system. I believe this is the physical component that defines "flow", or the ability to be so immersed in an activity or series of activities that, as I am at this point in my writing, we forget time. (I need to go stir tea on the stove. One moment...)

Alright. Um, our ability to sustain enough engagement in something to optimize our retention of that activity is, I believe, critically dependent on emotion. Think of reading a law book. Now, think of reading a law book on accounting. Now, think of reading a law book on accounting while referencing the IRS.gov web site for available white papers. The further we venture into emotional detachment from the activity, the more willpower we need to engage, the more energy we deplete through continuous activation and reactivation as we doze off and have to return and restart a portion of the activity.

I agree though that the challenge has to be enjoyable. I'm not interested in learning a new programming language while doing a handstand. I am, however, interested in learning a new programming language if a boy I like also likes it and likes to talk about it, and I want a reason to talk to him more often. (I had a stint learning C++ for that reason. And it's still one of the best things I've done because it expanded my understanding of paradigms and language capabilities.)

It's not necessarily a question of "will this work at all?" but rather a question of effectiveness. Numerous studies have shown that retrieval practice is generally more effective. I'm not sure I've seen a study yet which shows any other result.

For example, results in a study done on children:

(image) https://www.frontiersin.org/files/Articles/175657/fpsyg-07-0... (from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.0035...)

Experiment 2 is free recall (blank piece of paper trying to recall as many words as they studied in the prior phase).

Experiment 3 is recognition (given a randomly sorted list of all the studied words and a bunch of other words that weren't in the list).

I'd also suggest it limits the usefulness of your memory. By only learning by comparing coins, you might successfully get everything correct on a quiz that entirely consists of comparing coins. But if you're ever faced with a different situation, say you don't have a coin at all but you have to reproduce it in some way, it's likely your knowledge won't transfer.

I've been in plenty of situations, and I'm sure others have too, where I've "learned something" and I'm able to answer a multiple choice, but faced with an open-ended question with a free-form answer, I'm screwed because I can't actually recall the information. I've only trained recognition when possible candidates are placed before me.

> if I repetitively compare images of one correct coin and one incorrect coin, I am pretty sure that I would improve in some way, without putting so much effort in the process

Trying to figure out which coin is correct would be cognitive effort through - retrieval practice promoted by article. That is the point of article, it is not enough to see it, you have to work with it.

Sure if you repeat endlessly a task which is not related to the objective, it may fail to prove successful (without much surprise)

If people are utilizing study strategies in this vein, then it's certainly a fair argument by the author.

For the record, I made the same mistake of mistaking passive reading as knowledge acquisition.

It's like, the author is trying to achieve the opposite on purpose.

Repeatedly reading/hearing/etc something doesn't help you produce it, but the misconception isn't really the repetition, it's the reading. Repeatedly producing something does help with production. What's more interesting is that spaced repetition shows that increased frequency of repetition isn't actually better for long term memory, either.

The article would also benefit from a clear distinction between recognition and production of facts (memorization) and understanding concepts.

In my experience this is not only true for memorizing theoretical knowledge but for physical skills too. For example, if you learn the piano simply playing pieces you know won't make you a better piano player. To get better practicing really has to be difficult. This can be achieved either by learning new pieces or by making the pieces you know more difficult to play (e.g. play them faster, try to play them in a different style etc.)

The same for dancing. And actually the situation with (casual) dance lessons is much much worse.

For musical arts we have vast instructions on fingering/stopping. But we have almost nothing for dancing. Dance teacher often can't explain in words what he/she expecting from the student and how exactly specific move must be performed. As a result 90% of casual dance students leave the field because of that faulty teaching process.

It's not a faulty teaching process. I'm white, and I can dance. Dance, at its super basic foundation, is about physical awareness. The same way you teach someone how to use a piece of gym equipment, hold a yoga pose, or even ride a bike.

What I think is difficult to describe in dance is how to communicate emotion through your body, not just your face. For me, the hardest thing to overcome there is this fear that someone will make fun of me for taking it too seriously. I don't know why I have this fear about becoming so immersed in something that other people think I'm cringeworthy. If it wasn't an issue, I'd pull every muscle in my body just to nail a routine to Celine's "My Heart Will Go On".

Maybe the fear of humiliation is the culprit winning out more often than most people will admit?

I now need to think about this. Like, that's a damn good song to me. And given that it's my life, my time given to a performance of it, why in the world am I concerned about a few assholes who think they're cooler than me in that moment?

I intentionally didn't mention talent. It's quite clear that some people can learn dance at much higher rate than others. And those others need to spend much more time to achieve “basic” results. But that's not needs to be always true and it was proven in my country by a group of systems engineers, ballet dancers and teachers, they developed a special teaching model that reduce education time greatly. They sorted out “emotions” and other esoteric things and work with remaining physiology things. And results are impressive so it's really everything about teaching process.

Unfortunately offline course and all materials in russian only.

>> I'm white, and I can dance.

Confused by this statement. What has your ethnicity got to do with dancing?

At least in the US it’s a joke/stereotype that the white man can’t dance.

I would argue that spaced repetition does work and it is based on repetition. That you can do that wrong by just 'browsing' over your learning material again and again, okay but i would still connect good learning with repetition.

As someone very interested in this topic I don't get this article at all.

I've been studying Japanese for 10 years. That means learning and retaining thousands of characters, terms, pitch accents, multiple readings (about 2-10 per character), stroke orders, components of characters, example sentences, levels of politeness, etc.

He says one shouldn't just repeatedly look at the information, but quiz oneself. Even in school, as inefficient as our education system is, I wasn't told to just reportedly read the information. Instead, one should cover one part and guess it, so to speak. The whole spaced repetition aspect seems to be missing in this article however, and it also was missing in school, since you'd mostly be able to forget about things after the exam.

Looking at the penny example he seems to suggest that I should study the character 犬 by putting 太 next to it and ask "which one means dog?". I think this will only make you better at multiple choice tests and confuse you because you conflate unrelated knowledge with each other.

I'm not sure you read the article with good faith.

After the penny example, he goes on to talk about how important retrieval and exertion is to solidifying memories.

> Quizzing/testing/assessing one’s knowledge via answering recognition or recall questions, for example, is more difficult than simply rereading notes.

He then quotes:

> “Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better.” (5)

Going by what he says, I would suggest that his preferred learning strategy would be to, if you know you're going to be quizzed on what a penny looks like, try to recall what it looks like from memory. Then compare it to the actual penny, note what you got wrong, then try to recall it again. That's the kind of repetition and retrieval practice he's recommending in the article.

>Look at the image below and see if you can pick out the penny that is correct: It’s quite difficult to do, right? And, surely, you’ve encountered the penny hundreds, if not thousands of times

Yes, but I don't study the exact details of the penny. I was immediately able to identify any one of the images as "penny", which is what I would expect with the thousands of passing encounters I've had with it. I'm not sure this example gets the desired point across.

It might be more on point to have one group of students study several facts simply by reading them repeatedly, while a second group studies by recalling and using the facts in sentences. Then compare ability to recall the facts.

I'd argue that association is what drives memory. I can review something a million times and still forget it.

It's when I sit down, focus, and "feel" the meaning of the thing that I remember it thereafter.

It is incredibly difficult to remember something that you don't understand. In fact, your memory often elides things that you don't understand to the point where you will swear that something never happened when, in fact, it did. Statistically speaking, repetition is required for learning, but understanding is at least as important. In fact, sometimes if you can find no meaning for something, it helps to make up a meaning (for example the use of mnemonics).

I wondered why nobody has mentioned 'deliberative practice' yet when the article emphasizes some of its basic elements such as the importance of cognitive effort for learning.

The article is 100% about passive vs active studying and approximately 0% about repetition. Repetition is briefly touched on by pointing out that if you're 100% passively receiving information, then repetition doesn't help. The effect of repetition on active study is never brought up.


Also, isn't the correct penny A? I've never seen one in real life, but if wikipedia is to believed it says "In God We Trust" at the top, not "United States of America".

Even googling "1978 penny" shows the one from A.

Just FYI: We don't even know why we have them anymore. For the last 30 years or so, pennies have been worth less than their raw materials. They're so worthless, most people have more of them in their furniture or under their car seats than they do in their wallets.

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