The argument for the latter being if you focus on one thing your brain will rely more on short term memory in working things out. If you vary randomly within the domain, constant switching of context forces more reliance on long term memory structures. So you learn slower per session but show better generalization and retention of material in the long term. Its good if you are just learning but not useful if you are trying to figure something out.
The mechanisms are little understood but what's really cool is that a similar effect is seen in machine learning. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.117...
As for your criticism. Spaced repetition is well backed by experiments and centuries of observation and fits with our growing understanding of memory - see Long term potentiation and PKMZeta.
Contextual interference is more tricky as it is not fully understood but it is also long studied. Unlike cargo cult, various hypotheses are being offered, tested and refined. For example, the short-term long term memory observation is based on the observation that in tests of recall, stroke patients with impaired short term memory (regardless of method) and those using the varied examples method performed better after 24h+ than those using blocked practice with functional working memory. The hypothesis being that the constructs active in long term recall are more exercised using the varied examples method, leading to better long term performance. Another hypothesis is that increasing the complexity by interleaving examples increases the challenge level and hence engagement and motivational/reward circuits parts of the brain important for learning. In addition, interleaving examples forces a more general model to be learned, encouraging generalization instead of just short term memorization.
The comparison to machine learning (they use ANNs) is: when the examples do not reflect the distribution from which they are coming from, then the learned model is less general. And in particular, when a new set of examples with different properties is trained on it interferes negatively with already learned material. In the paper they give examples of similar occurrences in rats and humans.
Finally, it is important to note that randomly interleaving examples is not useful when trying to figure something out - where short term memory is key. The observation is that contextual interference disappears for complex tasks, this is because the information requires more complex processing and integration in working memory. The ability to hold more information and more complex models in working memory correlates strongly with the ability to understand things. Interfering with this process leads to poor performance short and long term. As the material is familiarized, compressed and basic models are composed, difficulty reduces. It is here that interleaving becomes important.
The practical implications are when practicing drill exercises, rather than blocking the material according to similarity, interleave the material so a less biased model is formed and the material is more challenging to keep focus. When designing exercises break them up into the core simple, defining examples and interleave these while gradually increasing the difficulty by composing more difficult models from the simpler material and continuing to interleaving these with the simpler basis examples set.
I could be wrong, but the article only mentions research on recall. The conclusions reported by the article match research results on recall. The article features one researcher, who happens to study recall. Now, if you think it's common sense that research on recall says little or nothing about hitting tennis balls or dancing the Viennese waltz, then how are you supposed to read the article? Science writing elides a lot for the sake of brevity and breeziness, but I have a hard time trusting that the author knew about research justifying the same conclusions in the case of tennis and dancing and decided that instead of mentioning how broadly the findings had been confirmed, he would lead his readers to believe that it's all based on one narrow path of research. (Also, I don't think it's a very good defense of science writing to say that an author didn't make a mistake in reasoning, he only encouraged his readers to do so.)
I've always seen myself as having a poor memory, but found that if I focused on understanding, I could remember easily. I thought this was because understanding itself is simpler (so there's less to remember), and one can reconstruct the facts from this understanding (also, verify them).
This is treating understanding as a theory, in terms of which the facts can be stated more briefly than without. An abstraction, if you like, that factors out commonalities/redundancies. If A always implies B, then you can just need to rememeber "A".
But later, I've realized that in fact, I do remember a great deal of detail that isn't derived from understanding. Perhaps understanding actually requires a lot of domain knowledge - facts - that the understanding is about. You can't "understand" in a vacuum. So, now I think that's it's just that somehow, causal connections and explanatory relationships stick in my memory more easily - they are certainly more interesting to me (because meaningful), so that helps with concentration and therefore memory.
I actually once tested my opinion that I couldn't memorize, for a university exam, and found - to my amazement - that I could. It really was surprising. But I didn't score nearly as well as I usually did, since I wasn't focused on understanding - which is what it is all about, IMHO.
It has a really bad name amongst certain education commentators. It's certainly true that you shouldn't try to memorize in a vacuum, or that you shouldn't test "higher order" skills (like complex questions, which require a real understanding of the basic blocks), but memorization of connected facts or processess is essential.
Examples I’ve often seen used by proponents of rote learning include multiplication tables and spelling lists. I’m better at mental arithmetic than almost everyone I know, and I almost never misspell words, not because I spent any effort memorizing lists of them (indeed, I completely refused to do this as a 9-year-old, because it bored the crap out of me), but because I’ve spent more time in exploratory play with the relationships between numbers than they have, and have spent lots of time reading, doing close textual analyses for my own edification, trying to write tight fluid prose, and playing with various kinds of poetry, etc.
I’m convinced that rote memorization is promoted as a pedagogical tool because it is cheap and easy and requires little effort from teachers and schools, more than because it’s particularly effective. Then again, everyone learns differently, and I know some people who are incredible at chewing through lists of facts once quickly and dredging them back up effortlessly months later. YMMV.
I personally think multiplication is actually a great thing for spaced repetition if you can get the software to pick random numbers each time. I also find that things that I don't review regularly just fall out of my head, spaced repetition software is good for just stopping that relatively easily.
My point about the multiplication tables and spelling lists though was that explicitly learning e.g. multiplication tables is pretty much unnecessary, because multiplying small numbers comes up again and again in doing more exciting and challenging problems, and by the 20th time you’ve had to multiply 6*8 through some explicit manual method, you’ll just start to remember that oh yeah, that’s 48 again.
Consider for example two native English speakers, one learning German and the other learning Chinese. German grammar is way more complex than Chinese's, but because of the etymological closeness between German and English, the German student will quickly get to the point where they can easily pick up new words from the context (obviating the need for vocabulary lists), while the Chinese student will pretty much never reach that. In this type of situation an SRS is invaluable.
Regarding multiplication tables, you shouldn't forget that knowing them by heart is sometimes necessary for understanding the exciting problems. This comes up all the time in mathematics: to understand the important problems in a field, you sometimes have to get to know well a lot of seemingly boring concepts.
That said, it's certainly not going to hurt anyone to increase their rote memorization abilities, in fact it's probably extremely useful in general, no matter what field you're in.
Whereas, when trying to "memorize" something, many people just kinda... hope the thing stays in memory through some unknown process. But you can "cheat" by consciously leveraging various cognitive abilities. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Method_of_loci#Contemporary_usa...) (Along with various little tips, like use lurid imagery, it's probably better to visualize large spaces you can walk through rather than tiny ones, etc.)
The corollary is my personal hypothesis that learning Latin actively helps you learn other European languages. In fact, learning French probably makes it easier to learn German, and knowing both gives you more background on which to build the English language. Eventually the limiting factor is memory and ability to differentiate language in context.
And if you're getting carried away and want to learn a second or a third one, then Spanish will give you most of the value of Latin in terms of transferable knowledge.
Once I began studying and learning the process of effective memorization, then foreign language became fun. It was a way to prove to myself that memorization techniques worked.
Granted, learning a language is more than just memorization of vocabulary. But elimination of that huge hurdle makes the rest more interesting and tractable.
I was tipped off to this by the best seller "The Memory Book" (which I highly recommend), but now there are plenty of web resources that may be as effective.
Here are some relevant links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memorization (and click on all the links on this page)
There's actually a Wired article about the author of the software http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/16-05/ff_woznia... Completely eccentric and totally devoted to using the thing. I mean he doesn't even decide when he responds to his own mail, Supermemo will "schedule" it for him. I believe the latest version supports something called "incremental reading" which Wozniak claims is better than the usual order we read things. You read till you get bored/tired and them move on and it'll keep track of where you were, etc.
The thing I found interesting in this article is that switching contexts actually increases the amount you can learn. From what I understand, this would mean studying grammar, character reading/production and vocabulary at the same time would be beneficial. I never quite understood why this was the case before, even though people have told me it is so.
My only concern with Anki is whether it still uses some variant of the SM-2 algorithm and whether or not the people implementing the software are doing more than just polishing interfaces, etc. and actively work on improving the learning algorithm. Looking at the history, SuperMemo on SM-11 http://www.supermemo.com/english/algsm11.htm and Wozniak claims that there is a substantial evidence that this algorithm increases the speed of your learning.
A more effective lament would be, it's too bad these techniques don't yet have universal application. But the above comment is just sniping; it's a claim that educators aren't even trying. Which, aside from being false, is acutely unhelpful.
At the most basic level Americans have shockingly low levels of scientific, mathematical, literary, or financial literacy. About half don't believe in evolution, about a quarter think the moon landing was a hoax, over two thirds don't know enough math to pass an 8th grade math test.
At the college level, students retain about 10% of what they hear in lectures. Forget nearly everything within months of graduation, and generally fail to improve on basic logic and reading comprehension skills compared to when they first entered university. Then after graduation the average college grad reads less than 1 book per year.
If you ask a typical college student (and remember I said typical, not those who can afford to pay 50k per year to attend an elite liberal arts college) what their university experience has been like they will tell you that in a solid three quarters of their classes they had a disinterested prof who showed up for 50 minutes to read them the textbook and then asked them to mindlessly regurgitate the content on the exam.
So I'll repeat that I think what's truly unhelpful is guys like you claiming that everything is hunky dory.
"Hunky dory"? Not to overly pick on your own logic and reading comprehension skills, but I made no such claim. We have a lot to do, and there's a lot that is known that doesn't have universal application, and some things aren't even widely implemented yet. I was, however, disputing the claim that "almost none" of it is implemented.
"Almost everything we know about optimal techniques for learning is being applied in real educational institutions. But, not every teacher is as effective at applying them..."
I guess my reading comprehension must be totally shot, because I interpret that as meaning that almost everything we know about techniques for learning is being applied, but the problem is just that some teachers aren't applying these techniques correctly. You know, instead of about 80% of teaching not giving a shit and there being no consequence to that for them.
And even if they were the separation is too much to actually be valid as a Spaced Repetition tool.
I also find that studying while listening to music is always risky, since you may find yourself craving music during the exam.
Honestly, I've read many books on learning and brain plasticity, and they all give somewhat contradictory results. Perhaps because cited studies rarely use the same approaches to learning/testing.
For example, in this article, we are told that 'topic-focused' studying is not the way to do it. But what they've really established is that in things which have multiple facets to work away at, an interleaving approach can produce better results. But what about learning in things in which there is a strong linear progression, or at least a strong 'prerequisite' relationship. In many technical courses, courses are often structured in this way, so that each 'topic' builds heavily on the last.
Honestly, the only consistent thread that I can really take out of all of this is that learning anything takes consistent, long term, DIRECTED work. It is possible to drop something your memory, and keep it at an 'adequate' level for a long time through somewhat consistent, more 'relaxed' work, but this 'knowledge' will leave you quickly as soon as you stop. Where as if you have long term directed work, it will end up embedding into your memory. After you stop, you may not be able to immediately recall these things, but after a quick refresher, you'll retain very very large amounts of information.
According to the article, there are three main ways to efficient learning:
1. Spaced Repetition - where the information is repeated, but with longer and longer intervals between each repeat.
2. Retrieval Practice - where you have to actively recall the answer or technique rather than being told or shown it.
3. Cognitive Disfluency - the harder you have to work to read or understand the material the more you will remember it. (I'm not sure how useful this point is. The New York Times article refers to research where the text was blurry, but from this it concludes that interleaving different topics would give a good results...I'm not convinced that would give the same result).
Lovely premise, but how am I expected to take this seriously without sources and references?
That's the source. This isn't a research paper - it doesn't need cited references to be submitted to the journal of Wired.
For me it's best motivation to try hard to understand something, when I can show off shortly after :) And it gives immediate feedback - if you can't explain something, you don't really understand it. And when a few people are learning together, they find most of the patterns quickly, and it makes learing the rest easier.
Plus, memorizing complex things with via SRS isn't easy. Figuring out how to break down the cards into small enough pieces is really hard for any non-trivial information.
For instance, I tried to use it to study for the PHP Cert from Zend. I passed the test, but only because I spent so much time researching to make the cards. The actual studying of the cards was pretty much useless after having done the real work of making the cards.
I tried to use it for studying languages, but I've found that the time making the cards is pretty much wasted (it's copy and paste, no thought involved) and studying them beyond the first few reps is pointless, too. If I can get through a few reps, and I'm actively using the language, there's no need to continue doing reps beyond that. I'm better off letting someone else make the list, study them like normal flashcards a few times, and then throw them away. (Better yet is something like iKnow that has the word, translation, picture and sentence.)
In the end, I've never actually found a use case for an SRS system that wasn't trumped by something else either because of easiness or just being better.
And it turns out that everything I thought I knew about learning is wrong.
These titles kill me. It's like the author has found out the ultimate gold mine. It's actually my strategy for learning for years. When approaching a particular topic/field, I start by reading related things to gain domain knowledge. This helps a bit later and accelerates my learning.