Many people seem to misunderstand the purpose of repetition in learning.
They seem to think that repetition is about ‘getting something into your memory’:
- memorise your study notes in school through endless repetition to ‘learn’ them
- go through endless repetitions of physical movements to ‘get them into muscle memory’
- go over scales again and again in music to ‘key them into memory’
The trouble with repetition as a learning device is that it doesn’t actually do anything very fast or very well.
Repetition is really about refinement.
- learn the physical movement, then run through repetitions (with a high quality reference experience) to refine it.
This actually makes use of our ‘learning and refinement’ loops
- learn the musical scales to educate and strengthen the necessary muscles. Repeat until they ‘sound right’. Refinement.
Repetition is learning only if you are refining what you have learned.
To embed learning, it must be memorable in some way. No amount of repetition can substitute for this.
I remember my Chemistry teacher giving us silly songs and rhymes to remember certain scientific principles. There wasn’t much repetition involved at all. At the time we absolutely hated it, but I can still call those principles clearly to mind twenty-five years later. They made the learning memorable.
If learning is fun, exciting, silly, shocking or fascinating, it is more memorable because the most accessible memories tend to be coded emotionally. We also tend to learn more quickly when emotion is present.
Repetition runs our learning through refinement loops until it reaches a stable conformation, where we meet some kind of internal standard (good enough) or match the quality of the reference experience we are trying to emulate.
So repetition without refinement isn’t really learning. It is a misuse of our most valuable resource: time.
When you learn, get out of the repetition trap by asking yourself what the purpose of the repetition really is. If it’s about ‘getting the information into your mind or body‘ then stop and make the learning memorable. Then only use repetition to refine your experience.