Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

19 December 2008

Thinking & Learning

Clark @ 4:32 PM

Today I stumbled across two interesting articles.  Both talk about some relevant research on learning, and coincidentally, both are by folks I know.

An alumni bulletin mentioned research done by Hal Pashler (who was a new professor while I was a grad student; I was a teaching assistant for him, and he let me give my first lecture in his class), and talks about the intervals necessary for successful learning.  Will Thalheimer has done a great job publicizing how we need to space learning out, and this research was interesting for the the length of time recommended.

The study provided obscure information (true but unusual), with an initial study, subsequent re-study, and then a test, with varying intervals between the study periods, and between the second study and the test (up to a year).  The article implied the results for studying (no new news: cramming doesn’t work), but the implications for organizational learning.  The interesting result is the potential length of time between studying and performance.

“If you want to remember information for just a week, it is probably best if study sessions are spaced out over a day or two.  On the other hand, if you want to remember information for a year, it is best for learning to be spaced out over about a month.”

Extrapolating from the results, he added, “it seems plausible that whenever the goal is for someone to remember information over a lifetime, it is probably best for them to be re-exposed to it over a number of years.”

“The results imply,” said Pashler, “that instruction that packs a lot of learning into a short period is likely to be extremely inefficient, at least for remembering factual information.”

This latter isn’t new information, but does fly in the face of much formal training conducted on behalf of organizations.  We’ve got to stop massing our information in single event workshops, and starting preparing, reactivating, and reactivating again for anything that isn’t performed daily.

Moving from learning to thinking and doing (it’s not about learning after all), the second one concerns research done by Jonathan Schooler (who was a new faculty member where I was doing my post-doc; we published some work we did together with one of his PhD students).  Schooler’s work has been looking at day-dreaming, and found that it’s not a unitary thing, but actually has a couple of different modes, which differ in whether you’re not aware you’re daydreaming or are, instead, mindful of it.  The latter is to be preferred.

In the one where you’re aware you are daydreaming, you can mentally simulate situations and plan what might happen and how to respond, or review what did happen and consider alternatives.  This works for social situations as well as other forms of interactions.  And the results are beneficial: “people who engage in more daydreaming score higher on experimental measures of creativity, which require people to make a set of unusual connections.”

This is what I mean when I talk about reflection, and in the coming times of increasing change and decreasing knowledge half-life, the ability to be creative will increasingly be a competitive advantage.  So, as I’ve said before, do try to make time for reflection.  It works!


  1. Kia ora Clark

    Thanks for this confirmation by the researchers Pashler and Thalheimer. Three things fall out of this for me:

    1 –
    It confirms what I’ve always believed about crash learning for exams and crash learning in general (without exams). Distance learners in particular cannot be easily monitored in the way they may attempt to cram a lot of material associated with learning into a short space of time. Their end assessments will not be a true measure of their learning though it may have some bearing on their ability to understand and apply.

    2 –
    Crash courses per se are implicated here. That’s not to say that they are no use, but the content, whether knowledge or concept, must be carefully analysed if the course is to be any use. Essential learning may be the way to go with this, giving feeds to where to find extension material if required.

    3 –
    Everyone is different. I see no reason to believe that learning for everyone isn’t also different. What one person can gain usefully from a paced rate of learning may not be equivalent to that acquired by another, even if their end assessments may be identical.

    This has implications – more than one might think – for all learners in all disciplines.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

    Comment by Ken Allan — 20 December 2008 @ 1:19 PM

  2. Ken, it may well vary by learner, but I think 1 and 2 are more important. I reckon assessments/tasks spread out over time might mitigate the effects of ‘cramming’ on the part of the learner, or rather leverage it, having them cram for it at sufficient intervals ;). Way back when (published in ’83, work done 78-79!) I co-wrote an article about using email for classroom discussion, one conclusion was to put more in the pipeline in parallel. Maybe move from the linear form of classroom in a virtual learning environment? Thanks for the thought!

    Comment by Clark — 20 December 2008 @ 5:08 PM

  3. Ka pai Clark

    Way back last century, year 12 students were assessed for what was called Sixth Form Certificate in New Zealand. SFC consisted of a whole series of specific assessments over the whole year, including an end of year examination in some disciplines. SFC was tossed out towards the end of the 90s in favour of a standards based assessment that embraced the senior school.

    For all the vagaries that were talked about to do with SFC, I always felt that it was a better system in terms of education, rather than duty performed. One of its strengths that I saw was that it provided a broad based education rather than training in chosen spots which standard based assessment tends to do.

    ka kite
    from Middle-earth

    Comment by Ken Allan — 22 December 2008 @ 3:22 AM

  4. […] Thinking & Learning | Learnlets | Clark Quinn |19 December 2008 […]

    Pingback by Time intervals, spacing, and a little daydreaming thrown in | Workplace Learning Today — 23 December 2008 @ 5:05 AM

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