Oftentimes what is determined in the experimental psychologist’s laboratory carries little weight outside of that environment. No matter how much the scientist varies the experimental conditions, the testing situation is so obscure, so “unrealistic” if you will, that the lay reader is left to ascertain how to apply these results to daily life. Unfortunately, memory and learning experiments, which have such potential implications for educational settings, sometimes suffer the most from this problem.
The incorporation of naturalistic learning tasks into the designs of such experiments is one effective way of avoiding this drawback. In experiments of this type, the psychologist designs his experiment with the intention of gathering data that can be generalized to daily life situations. The most common approach in the related literature consists of putting different effects in learning, that is, those laboratory confirmed optimization strategies, to the test, in naturalistic, real life situations.
The spacing effect (SE) refers the advantage in memory for information repeated at spaced intervals of time over information repeated in massed fashion. For my senior honors thesis at Brandeis University, I studied the spacing effect in “laining” or chanting from the Torah. The reason that I chose to conduct my experiment on laining from the Torah is twofold. (1): Many observant Jews learn to chant from the Torah for their Bar Mitzvah or at other times during their lifetime. When they read from the Torah they are expected to sing all the trop correctly despite the fact that the Torah scroll contains no symbols (or vowels). Some students spend months learning the cantillations of the Torah portion while others might spend a few weeks (I spent ten months and virtually every Sunday as a 12 year old learning my Bar Mitzvah portion). In that respect, I was interested in determining ways to optimize the learning of this sometimes grueling process. (2) I was also responding to scientists such as Dempster (1988), Rea and Modigliani(1988), Zechmeister and Shaughenessy(1980) and Izawa(1993) who believe that practical applications of the spacing effect have lagged behind the laboratory studies. Seeing the potential value for educational and instructional settings, all maintain that more has to be done to investigate the practical aspects of the spacing effect. I decided to investigate laining as my practical task (true, not practical to everyone) in the hope that we could all in some way benefit from its educational ramifications.
Sixteen participants studied musical cantillations to Biblical verses in Hebrew across the period of five days. Spacing was assigned with respect to level of session across passages (i.e., spaced vs. massed sessions) and with respect to level of list design (Purely Spaced (PS) verses vs. Purely Massed (PM) verses). The SE was not significantly demonstrated within subjects’ design, where spacing took place across days. On the basis of overall performance, however, a highly significant SE was found between subjects, indicating that a small advantage exists for spaced study even in pure list design. These findings contradict Hall (1992) but offer support to Glenberg and Smith’s (1981) generation hypothesis. Most importantly, these results testify to the robust and widely applicable nature of the spacing effect.