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Repetition and Memory

With a few exceptions, learning almost always requires practice and repetition. For some reason, these are some of the most neglected aspects of learning design. Ever heard a variation on this conversation?

FIRST SUPERVISOR:

The staff is still throwing away the empty cartridges.

SECOND SUPERVISOR:

But I know we told them not to. See, it’s the third bullet point on slide 22 of the training presentation.

When you learn something new, connections are formed between neurons in your brain.

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Like the paths that gradually develop when people repeatedly walk over the same ground, the connections that form in the brain are strengthened and reinforced whenever a learner re-encounters the material.

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Connections that are reinforced become stronger and more durable. And, like a path that sees dwindling traffic, connections that aren’t reinforced will usually fade or become irretrievable. Repetition and practice are necessary to successfully retain most learning for the long term.

Also, it’s important for a learning designer to figure out how to have reinforcement without resorting to monotonous repetition. We know that multiple exposures to an idea improve the likelihood that the idea will be retained (well and good). But (and this is a big but) habituation tells us that people also tune out repetitive, unchanging things.

In the later design chapters, we look at how to reinforce an idea while avoiding tedious repetition.

Memorization: The Blunt Force Solution

So if repetition is so critical, why is memorizing stuff such a pain in the butt? Should we just get tough and use lots and lots of repetition to grind that information into people’s heads?

When I was in college, I took an architecture class. The professor was explaining about early church buildings. She explained that the people building the churches wanted to make the buildings as tall as possible, because they believed high ceilings enhanced churchgoers’ religious feeling.

There were two different ways, the professor said, to make a building really tall: Use clever engineering to support the walls, or just make the walls really thick.

Using pure memorization to grind something into a learner’s brain is the equivalent of building really thick walls—yes, it works, but it takes a lot of resources, and it’s a clunky solution.

The biggest problem with memorization through repetition is that it frequently puts the information on just one shelf:

When you learn something by using it in context, you put it on multiple shelves and learn how to use that information in multiple contexts.

So basically, if you repeat something over and over, eventually you will wear a groove into your long-term memory, but there are some limitations to that approach.

  • It’s only on one shelf (basically the “stuff I memorized” shelf), which gives you only one place to look when you are trying to retrieve the information.
  • You don’t have experience using it in multiple contexts, so it’s more difficult to take that information and transfer it to a variety of situations.
  • You likely have sequential rather than random access to the information. If you learn something in a memorized sequence, then the context for that information is in that sequence, and your ability to retrieve it is also in that sequence. You probably have to tick through the list every time you need to retrieve something, which is much slower than being able to get directly to that item.
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