Forgetting to Remember: Spaced Repetition in Learning

*This post was published on the Lingvist Blog.

Language learning researchers estimate that someone who knows between 800–1,000 words can successfully participate in basic, everyday conversations. After learning 2,000 words, research suggests you can understand about 80% of a text. Considering that you probably want to have some time left over to actually use your second language (before you’re in retirement), how can you learn one to two thousand words in a reasonable time frame? The key is forgetting to remember, or using your brain’s natural cyclical processes for moving new information into long-term storage to your advantage.

It sounds odd, but in order to cement something in your memory, you have to allow yourself to start to forget it. It turns out that there is actually a very specific window of time in which it’s best to review information that you’ve just begun to forget. But how are you supposed to know whether or not you’ve forgotten something? How can you pin down this optimal time frame? Luckily, researchers have developed a mathematical model that can track and predict this curve. Even better, with technology, we are finally able to put these findings into practice.

What Is Spaced Repetition?

Experimental psychologists have been trying to pin down the exact behavior of items in our memory for over a century. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered several patterns with regard to how quickly people are able to memorize information. He also tracked when that information starts to “decay” or become more difficult to call up. He described these patterns and findings as the learning curve, the forgetting curve, and the spacing effect. These patterns are foundational to the concept of spaced repetition (a.k.a. repetition scheduling and repetition learning), which is the usage of gradually increasing intervals to create an optimal learning schedule.

See the full article on the Lingvist blog!