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January 2011



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 Study, study, study!

Much of psychology’s efforts over the last few decades have been spent on understanding the nature of memory. Increasingly, though, psychologists are beginning to apply what we’ve learned about memory, so as to help enhance people’s performance. In 2007, the Digest reported on a study that investigated the optimal interval to leave between study periods if you want to remember material long term. Now Claudia Meltzer-Baddeley and Roland Baddeley have tested a related approach to study, known as adaptive training, and found that it too helps boost learning.

Adaptive training is a strategic form of study that ensures the learner spends more time focused on material they know less well and less time focused on already mastered material. This means that less familiar material is re-examined more frequently, while better mastered material is gradually left for longer and longer periods. It’s possible to employ this kind of system by using stacks of learning cards, whereby correctly answered cards are placed on piles that are re-tested less often. However, there are computerised tools like “SuperMemo” that simplify and enhance this process, allowing the learner to say how confidently they answered each item, which in turn influences the likelihood of that item appearing again.

Meltzer-Baddeley and Baddeley tested the ability of 32 undergrads to learn Spanish vocabulary using the SuperMemo software. Crucially, they compared the learning effectiveness of two versions – one employed adaptive training, whilst the other version simply randomised the presentation of the study items. The researchers found that the adaptive training version significantly boosted performance on a vocab test given immediately after training and two weeks’ later, compared with performance using the simple randomised presentation of study items.

The size of the adaptive training benefit was modest but the researchers said “in real life situations, in which motivated people may come back to material repeatedly across larger periods of times, we would expect much bigger advantages of adaptive spacing.” They concluded that adaptive computer based training programmes could prove to be a useful tool “to enhance memory in healthy individuals, as well as people with learning and memory problems.” 

Metzler-Baddeley, C., & Baddeley, R. (2009). Does adaptive training work? Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23 (2), 254-266 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1454


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