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Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Nature of Learning (and Remembering)

For the past several months, I’ve been serving as an Algebra tutor for my friend’s child. This kid is very gifted intellectually, but he suffers from pretty severe ADHD, and unfortunately Algebra is his last class of the day, right about the time when his lack of attentiveness and patience reach their peak. Couple that with an Algebra teacher who will be retiring at the end of the school year without much “student cultivation” interest left in him, and you have a recipe for failure … literally.

What makes Algebra such a perfect study in learning is that you have the two fundamental brain concepts required for knowledge attainment – memorization and reasoning. The first getting the right bits of data stored in the brain, the second creating the logical (neural) connections between them. It’s fairly easy to remember (memorize) the equations such as the quadratic formula, but how you derive it and apply it is another matter entirely. And while I’ve long held that most education systems (the ones I’m familiar with) teach kids how to memorize and not really how to learn, I’ve never spent much time thinking about how to more effectively teach learning.

The other day I was reading Josh Kopelman’s wonderful blog
and I came across a Wired Magazine article entitled “Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm”. The article discusses the SuperMemo (super memory) program and its creator Piotr Wozniak (no connection noted to the Apple Computer co-founder). The concept is based on the scientific theory called The Spacing Effect that the essentially says that the ideal time to practice what you’ve learned is right at the time you are about to forget it. Any earlier than that is essentially a waste of time and energy, and any later is too late and you’ll be starting over. How to know when is the right time – that’s the engine behind SuperMemo. Supposedly by following SuperMemo’s techniques, you’ll retain information astoundingly better than by any other means. And there are plenty of people (both users and scientists) who are proponents of this technique.

As for my tutoring sessions, the spacing effect is built in by default. It’s whenever I have time to meet with the kid since he doesn’t do any studying or practicing of Algebra between our sessions, and as noted earlier, there is no way he is paying attention in class. The question is, is it the right amount of spacing? I meet with him the night before every test and quiz, and any other times in between when I am available. The coefficients for the spacing effect are different for each person, and probably unique for each bit of information. But, so far, I’m happy to report that my student has aced every test since we’ve started. The big question is how much is being learned versus appropriately regurgitated during test time.