RealSchooling and the Homeschool Nation Podcast exist for many reasons. Chief among these reasons are, firstly, to enhance the benefits of the limited time we have to educate our children and, secondly, to make life a little easier for all involved. Few things aid both of these missions as effectively as giving teacher and student alike the tools for retaining information and knowledge. Retention is different than knowledge. For example, as you read the first paragraph, you understood every word. Yet, if I asked you to rewrite the words that you’ve just read, verbatim, I doubt that you’d do very well (I wrote them, and I don’t think that I’d do very well)! That’s because, while you had knowledge of the words, your brain didn’t have any reason to think it was important to memorize them. Even if you did have a reason to memorize them, without knowing what tools would allow your brain to succeed would be like expecting someone to solve “3×3= (?),” without ever having introduced them to the concept of multiplication; it’s just not going to happen.
So, how do we teach for retention? The process, discovered over a hundred years ago (and effectively proven, and reproduced, in subsequent research), is called spaced repetition, spaced learning, or the spacing effect, and, if you want the extremely detailed explanation, you can read about it here. If you’re just interested in actually applying it, then read on.
Some of it is very obvious, and only seems to be forgotten when placed into the context of education, ironically. People have short attention spans. The less interested we are in the topic, the shorter our attention span. So, new material should be taught in 15-30 minute bursts. 45-60 minutes later, that material should be reviewed with a short quiz (3-5 questions will usually do the job). A 5 minute review that evening would be a serious bonus – especially if it is in the form of the student explaining the content to another family member (ideally, the non-homeschooling parent). The following day or two present an opportunity for the student to teach the information to the teacher. The more thoroughly the student can explain, the deeper their understanding of the subject actually is. Then, the material is reviewed every other day, then weekly, then monthly, and so on. As the student demonstrates retention, less and less time need be spent reviewing the material.
The following bullet points are taken from the linked article, on the brilliant, Farnham Street Blog, found at FS.blog:
- A schedule for review of information. Typical systems involve going over information after an hour, then a day, then every other day, then weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, then every six months, then yearly. Guess correctly and the information moves to the next level and is reviewed less often. Guess incorrectly and it moves down a level and is reviewed more often.
- A means of storing and organizing information. Flashcards or spaced repetition software (such as Anki and SuperMemo) are the most common options. Software has the obvious advantage of requiring little effort to maintain, and of having an inbuilt repetition schedule. Anecdotal evidence suggests that writing information out on flashcards contributes to the learning process.
- A metric for tracking progress. Spaced repetition systems work best if they include built-in positive reinforcement. This is why learning programs like Duolingo and Memrise incorporate a points system, daily goals, leaderboards and so on. Tracking progress gives us a sense of progression and improvement.
- A set duration for review sessions. If we practice for too long, our attention wanes and we retain decreasing amounts of information. Likewise, a session needs to be long enough to ensure focused immersion. A typical recommendation is no more than 30 minutes (for older students – less time should be taken for elementary school students, in particular), with a break before any other review sessions.
For further insights on memory and forgetting, see the forgetting curve and Hermann Ebbinghaus.