Repetition and Learning

There are many misconceptions about effective learning and studying. One of these false beliefs is that repetition is the key to remembering; the more someone encounters material, the better the likelihood of retaining the information long-term. I can still remember, after receiving a test grade that I wasn’t thrilled with, believing that I would’ve done better if I’d just gone over the material more times. It is a belief that permeates throughout all levels of education and learning…and it is quite incorrect. Worse than that, when it doesn’t improve students’ grades, repetition can contribute to learners’ overall negative thoughts about studying and homework and school. 

Here’s a simple example to demonstrate how simply encountering material doesn’t equate with learning. Look at the image below and see if you can pick out the penny that is correct:

It’s quite difficult to do, right?* And, surely, you’ve encountered the penny hundreds, if not thousands of times. Sorry to my readers who are not from America…I’m sure the impact of this demonstration can be adapted for other currencies. Just try to draw one of your coins with all of its components in the correct position. (1) 

Another easy example is to try and locate the nearest fire extinguisher or fire alarm to you right now. Don’t look around. Where is it? You’ve likely walked past it numerous times. Again, it isn’t quite as easy as it sounds. Simply encountering this information or seeing these objects several times doesn’t mean it is learned. (2)

After taking my students through these examples, I often continue the discussion by introducing the idea of cognitive effort and the difference between cognitively easy and cognitively effortful studying.

“Learning that’s easy is like writing in sand, here today and gone tomorrow.” (3)

Rereading is usually cognitively easy. Highlighting key terms/concepts is cognitively easy. These practices repeated several times are not very efficient or effective for increasing retention of material. Instead, students should create a much healthier habit of studying using retrieval practice. This learning strategy is much more cognitively effortful. Quizzing/testing/assessing one’s knowledge via answering recognition or recall questions, for example, is more difficult than simply rereading notes. A plethora of studies have shown evidence that this increased cognitive effort led to greater gains in retention of material long-term.** 

Said another way, students should allow for opportunities during studying for desirable difficulties. (4) By providing situations where they must apply their learning in an effortful manner, while still being able to complete the task (that’s the ‘desirable’ part), students are more efficiently and effectively studying. And, just maybe, more effective studying = more knowledge retained = better assessment grades = more motivated students = reinforcement for overall healthier study habits. 

“Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. We’re easily seduced into believing that learning is better when it’s easier, but the research shows the opposite: when the mind has to work, learning sticks better.” (5)

It isn’t the repetition of studying that yields positive results. The cognitive effort exerted during that studying is what appears to matter. While this may seem somewhat obvious to teachers, many students don’t understand this tenet of learning. I highly recommend considering replicating the penny memory test in your classroom and having an explicit conversation about this topic with students. And, to be fair, this would be a powerful topic for professional development/learning for teachers, too. While more educators are becoming aware of these principles of learning, there is certainly still work to do. 

* Letter A is the correct penny.

**The Power of Testing Memory: Basic Research and Implications for Educational Practices provides a nice synthesis of some of this research.

  1. Nickerson, R. S., & Adams, M. J. (1979). Long-term memory for a common object. Cognitive psychology, 11(3), 287-307.
  2. Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press, 12-13.
  3. Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press, 3.
  4. Bjork, Elizabeth & Bjork, Robert. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society. 56-64. 

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick. Harvard University Press, 43.

15 thoughts on “Repetition and Learning

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  1. So I had this discussion with Pooja. Yes, these (sorry) parlor tricks might make a point but they make the wrong point. What is the purpose of a penny? Is it to convey information about which way the president’s face it pointing or is it to use in a transaction for the purchase of goods and services. I guarantee that our repeated experience with pennies has cemented their value, how they used when they won’t work (in vending machines), etc. Just because you don’t know the detailed configuration doesn’t mean you didn’t “learn” anything about pennies.

    Likewise, the study on fire extinguishers showed that while students couldn’t tell you or describe where the extinguisher was most could find in less than 30 seconds. THAT was what was more important. In the event of a fire it is far more important to be able actually locate it rather than (in most cases) tell someone where it is. Sure if you can do both, that’s great but we do have limited working capacity so storing rarely needed information in spatial or physical memory rather that in verbal linguistic memory helps to reduce that load.

    This is one of the problem of misapplied assessment. We tend apply the same wrong assessment technique to all learning. We’ve gotten so lost in trivial pursuit type of knowledge that we lose sight of how the knowledge is actually used. I’m sure you drive your car every day (or at least used to). I’m equally sure that I could ask you to describe where certain features are and you’d likely get it wrong. However, I’m also sure that you’ve never had an issue with finding your way around the operation of your car on a daily basis. So asking someone to report verbally or written form about something they use or interact with on a daily basis is the misapplication of assessment. Instead a proper assessment would be to have them perform some movement with the thing they interact with.

    Just like with our students, I’m finding that asking them the definition of a term is not enough if they cannot apply the concept to a novel situation. Don’t get me wrong undertanding the definition can be important but applying the concept seems to be more of the point (at least to me).

  2. The penny test is a poor example. Although people encounter pennies regularly, no one actually looks closely and examines the penny regularly. In the other words, you can’t remember something that you were never or hardly aware of in the first place.

    As a counter-example, imagine you have a word written on your door that you see (or accidentally read) everyday. Given enough repetitions, say a month, the written word on the door would surely permeate on your memory. Compare to this to just seeing this word, one or two times, but with more cognitive effort to remember it.

    My point is that just applying more cognitive effort doesn’t necessarily yield better results. A good balance between repetition and effort is probably the key. Note I have no studies to cite, just arguing based on logic.

    1. I would suggest that it depends on what you’re supposed to do with the information. I may be wrong as I do not teach math but it does take repetion to learn the times tables and simple addition of single and double digit numbers. In my experience many math concepts do take repetition until they “stick”.
      All I’m saying is that it’s not an all or nothing scenario. There is a place repetition (after all what is spaced practice but an extended form of repetition) and we need make sure that assessments match the type of learning outcome we are aiming for.

      1. Thank you very much for your comment. You make some good points and have genuinely given me a lot to consider. I really appreciate it as I want to do this education thing as best I can for my students.

        I would love to be able to connect with you. Do you use twitter or have a website I can follow?

        Thanks again.


  3. ” * Letter G is the correct penny.” Please study some more ( G is NOT the correct answer ).

  4. A friend of mine – a retired school head teacher – recently privately published a book of 150 poems he’d learnt by heart. I asked him how he’d managed to learn them all and his reply was “constant repetition”,

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