The most important research on learning I’ve read

Someone has posted it on line, so here it is !

Deferred Feedback Sharply Dissociates Implicit and Explicit Category Learning
J. David Smith, Joseph Boomer, Alexandria C. Zakrzewski, Jessica L. Roeder, Barbara A. Church, and F. Gregory Ashby  Psychological Science 2014, Vol. 25(2) 447-457

I’ve been mulling this article since the summer of 2014, when it was published. It’s life altering.

Unfortunately, if you’re not in the field, reading the study isn’t easy. The press release is intelligible but brief. 

For the moment, the thing to know is that this study probably proves, finally, that we have two separate and distinct learning systems inside our brains.

Psychologists and cognitive scientists have been talking about “dual systems” and “dual systems theory” forever, but no one had nailed it down. Now they have.

The two systems are separate and distinct in the sense that if you turn one system “off” the other still learns. They’re “dissociable.” 

And: the 2 systems learn differently.

“Deferred feedback” looks at category-learning, but as far as I can tell these two systems learn everything, including physical skills. 
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Compare and contrast

The chart below is correct (I believe), but it says nothing about the relationship between the two learning systems–which no one seems to understand yet. 

So, while I’ve put “vocabulary” under explicit learning, I’m fairly sure vocabulary can also be picked up via implicit learning. 

And given what I’ve seen in the L2 literature about grammar learning, it seems clear that some explicit learning helps with grammar, too–at least, with the kind of grammar you use in formal writing, as well as with learning the grammar of a second language.

Obviously, no one learns the conversational grammar of his or her native language at school. 

In short, the two systems seem both to compete and to support each other in some way no one has worked out.
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Information-integration learning Rule-based learning 
“Life” learning “School” learning
Unconscious Conscious
Implicit learning: you can’t necessarily put what you’ve learned in words (& if you can, words come to you later) Explicit learning: you can put what you’ve learned in words
Intuition, everyday categories (good versus bad, dog versus cat), social rules, habit Formal concepts, theories, disciplines, etc.
Grammar Vocabulary
Learns relatively slowly Learns quickly
Can’t learn “offline” (learning stops after a “lesson” is over) Can learn “offline” (learning continues after a lesson is over)
Must have immediate feedback – students must know whether their answer was right or wrong after each answer or no learning occurs Can learn with delayed feedback – students can get their tests back days later and still learn from their mistakes)
Can learn several things at the same time (e.g.: can learn the orientation and the width of a stimulus) Can learn just one thing at a time (can learn the orientation or the width of a stimulus, but not both at the same time)

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From the abstract:

Deferred reinforcement qualitatively eliminated implicit, information-integration category learning. It left intact explicit, rule-based category learning.

Babadum and “decontextualized learning”

I’ve just found this site today — it’s amazing.

I’m not ready for it, but a couple of months from now — look out !

That said, I should probably add that I have no idea how it works, or whether it has a spaced-repetition algorithm. 

Still, the images are so much fun that the site’s ability to hold my interest is enough to make me use it.
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Decontextualized learning

I mentioned the other day that I’m using 3 language apps: Duolingo, Lingvist, and now Memrise, too. Eventually I’ll get around to Glossika (because John McWhorter likes it), though maybe not till I’m putting more time into Spanish.

And, of course, one of these days I’ll actually use Gabriel Wyner’s Pronunciation Trainers, which I should have done before I did anything else, but didn’t.

I bought them.

I didn’t use them.

Because Anki.

One day I will be an Anki person, but that day is not this day. (Wyner has an app coming out in August, so, yes, I will be adding another app to the queue.)

Anyway, my thinking in fanning out among apps was that I didn’t want the words I learned to be stuck inside Duolingo. I wanted them to generalize to the real world.

I don’t know whether failure-to-generalize is a real concern, but I did find an interesting passage on decontextualized vocab learning in Paul Nation’s What do you need to know to learn a foreign language?

The most important deliberate learning activity is using word cards …. You need to take control of this very effective activity and keep using it to learn new vocabulary and even more importantly to keep revising previously met vocabulary. You may find that some teachers advise against using this strategy largely because of the belief that all vocabulary learning needs to occur in context. They are wrong. It is important that there is vocabulary learning in context through meaning-focused input, meaning-focused output, and fluency development, but it is also important that there is deliberate decontextualised learning through the use of word cards, because such learning is very efficient and effective. Some people also believe that because word card learning involves first language translation, it encourages thinking in the first language rather than the foreign language. Research however has shown that in the beginning and intermediate stages of language learning the first and foreign languages are unavoidably stored together. Using bilingual word cards is a very effective deliberate learning strategy that you should use.

Not happy, Duolingo edition

From a week ago, the review I wrote of the Duolingo app after that morning’s “Health” crash:

I wouldn’t bother with this app. Use the desktop version instead.

Better yet, download Lingvist & skip Duolingo altogether.

The Duolingo app’s “Health” system — which the desktop version does not have — is beyond frustrating.

Under the Health regime, Duolingo punishes mistakes by freezing the lesson you’re trying to learn.

You’re allowed 5 mistakes, max, and that’s the best-case scenario. If you begin a new lesson with just 1 “health bar,” you’re allowed to make just 1 mistake. Then you’re locked out.

Once you’re tossed off the system, you have 4 options:

  • complete 5 separate (& lengthy) practice sessions to regain 5 health bars, then start the same lesson all over again
  • wait nearly five hours for Duolingo to unlock your lessons, then start the same lesson all over again
  • use “lingots” to buy health & continue the lesson — if you have enough lingots, which you won’t
  • pay two bucks to continue — then pay another two bucks when you make the same mistakes on the same lesson because you weren’t given enough practice to learn the right answers the first go-round

Worse yet, there’s no way around the Health issue; buying a Duolingo Plus subscription doesn’t exempt you.

It’s a miserable system.

Apart from the frustration of being blocked mid-lesson, there is also the tension of watching your health bars disappear as you try to reach the end of a lesson without another misstep. I’ve now resorted to Googling answers, which Duolingo occasionally declares wrong (more frustration), and which defeats the purpose of forced-choice “information-integration” learning.

This is no way to teach.

The research I’ve looked at says that “information-integration” learning requires “full feedback”: you learn better when you are given negative feedback about wrong answers as well as positive feedback about right answers.

Meanwhile, conscious “rule-based” learning (which you are also doing some of on Duolingo) apparently depends almost entirely on negative feedback about mistakes.

In short, we learn from mistakes, and we need to make mistakes to discover the ‘boundaries’ of a concept or skill. But on Duolingo mistakes are illegal.

To add insult to injury, the Duolingo team has posted a rationale justifying “Health” as a way of preventing app-bingeing.

In my book, trying to get through one lesson without being blocked doesn’t qualify as a binge.

Even if it did, “bingeing” on a language app (for heaven’s sake) is my business, not Duolingo’s.

Help desk

Here’s a question a friend just asked re: the following–

I live with my father in the summer, when I’m on vacation from school.

Why does that comma make sense?

The handbook rule (speaking of main and subordinate clauses) is that we use commas  when the subordinate clause introduces the main clause, but not when the subordinate clause follows the main clause:

I wake up early because I like to walk the dogs before I go to work.

Because I like to walk the dogs before I go to work, I wake up early.

The “I live with my father” sentence seems to break that rule, but it ‘sounds right,’ so the question is why is that.

Why does the comma after summer sound right?

My guess is that “when I’m on vacation from school” is functioning as a kind of nonrestrictive modifier–a parenthetical–but I’m no linguist … so we will await word from Katharine, who is.

UPDATE: Katharine says it’s nonrestrictive!

It’s a lot of fun having a friend who’s a linguist.