Learning from learning research

Learning from learning research

Recent research at UCLA’s Bjork Learning & Forgetting Lab (a marvelously evocative name for a lab, no?) suggests that variety and contrast in learning work best for students of all ages. Psychologist Susan Pinker has reviewed the work of Professors Robert Bjork and Nate Cornell in a column in the Globe and Mail (“The trick to learning“) and reports that their findings suggest that our brains don’t retain learning through concentrated repetition but rather through varied training that is spaced out over time.

What makes the research of Bjork and his colleagues distinctive is its focus on long-term memory and its measurement of the ability of a learner to retain new concepts or skills and apply them in different settings. (The retention and transference of learning is, almost by definition, a key measure of effective training or education.) Pinker recounts one particularly interesting experiment that compared the performance of college-age students and adult learners:

…The researchers presented university students and older adults with examples of one painter’s work, testing how best to foster understanding of the artist’s style. Should they intersperse Rembrandt’s paintings with other Dutch masters to distinguish his unique features from those of other artists? Or is it better to group multiple Rembrandts, to emphasize his style?
The researchers expected that the latter teaching method – known as blocking, or massing- would work best with older learners. They were surprised to find that both age groups learned best when several artists’ works were intermixed. People need the challenge provided by varying examples, spaced out over time.

Pinker reports that UCLA researchers believe that these spaced-out sessions trigger development of our neural networks. One neuroscience professor told her: “The molecular processes underlying memory take time to complete, one step strengthening the next. Massing training results in weak molecular changes that can easily fade away, while spacing training triggers more robust molecular changes that result in stronger, more stable memories.”
What can educators and trainers learn from this research? The UCLA findings provide support for many current effective learning practices. When we do use repetition as a tool in learning (building vocabulary, memorizing equations, etc.), we should be look to intersperse it, and to integrate it into more varied settings. We should strive for learning that is unpredictable and that highlights differences (“compare and contrast”). Online learning is particularly well-suited for providing variety and contrast and its 24/7 availability also allows students to space out their learning sessions. I’d maintain that narrative learning, in the form of case studies and simulations, is another powerful way of sparking higher order learning (analyzing, synthesizing, making decisions) and building those “stronger, more stable memories.”


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders