Optimal learning competition: Mastering Lithuanian in an hour

Psychologists from the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College London (UCL) have launched a unique international competition, with a $10,000 prize, to find the best way of tackling a memory problem faced by millions of people every day, namely how best to learn foreign language vocabulary. Dr Rosalind Potts and I have teamed up with Memrise (www.memrise.com), creators of a free online vocabulary learning tool and app, to run the competition.

Explaining the idea for the competition, Dr Potts said “Memory researchers have been exploring memory techniques for a century and have identified numerous tricks that can enhance learning. However these methods tend to be studied in isolation from one another, and our competition asks how they should be combined into a single best ‘recipe’”.

Entrants to the competition, who may be researchers or students, will devise their own method for teaching English-Lithuanian vocabulary and will have to test how well someone using the method can remember the words a week after a single 1-hour learning period. The outcome of the competition, which will be made public, will help language learners and teachers to maximize retention of vocabulary while learning a foreign language.

The competition is an applied science challenge to create the most powerful methodology for memorising new information, using any and all effects discovered in the history of psychological research or even some undiscovered ones. The $10,000 prize for the winner makes this one of the richest competitions in applied psychology. The deadline for entries is 28th February 2015. Further details are available at www.memrise.com/prize/.

What inspired this competition?

Cognitive and educational psychology and neuroscience have unearthed a vast number of factors which influence how effectively humans retain information, yet we still don’t really know how best to combine these factors, to maximise the effectiveness of memorisation. The competition hopes to stimulate progress, creativity and knowledge-sharing in this educationally vital field, and by doing so to drive forward our shared understanding of the human mind.

What’s the format of the competition?

The ultimate aim, in a nutshell, is this: real world learners will be given one hour to memorise translations of foreign language words such as house = talo (this is in Finnish), with the quality of their memorisation tested one week later. The competition will compare different ways of using that hour of learning: what’s the best way to spend that hour to maximise retention after one week?

The organizers will provide a computerised baseline task and competitors will test their own proposed method against that baseline condition in their own laboratories, classrooms or elsewhere. The difference in scores for the two groups on the test phase will be used to identify the most promising learning methods. These will then be tested on the Memrise system.

Who can compete?

The competition is open to anyone: Professional scientists, companies, psychology students, amateur enthusiasts, schoolchildren, research groups, teams of enthusiasts. It’s a completely open competition for any person or team to see how far they can optimise human learning within the constraints of the competition format: one hour of learning, a test one week later: what’s the most effective use of that hour?

How will the winner be judged?

The competition has two phases. First, competitors will test their proposed method against the standard control method that the organizers supply, and will submit their experimental data and a description of their method to the panel of judges. The best entries as judged by the panel will then be run on a controlled selection of 1000 people on the Memrise website, with the final winner determined statistically by the recall performance of those 1000 after a one week gap.

Aside from collecting the money prize, the winning entry will feature in an article co-authored and shared with the scientific and business community. Publicising the winning entry will be for the benefit of humanity and will set the bar for future research on this topic.

Who’s behind the competition?

The Memrise Prize competition was developed by me and Dr. Rosalind Potts from UCL in collaboration with the team of scientists and researchers at Memrise.com. A panel of leading researchers in the field of memory and neuroscience will be involved with the evaluation of submissions and in ensuring a fair and open process.

To fuel your imagination, here is a by-no-means complete list of effects discovered in the course of the last 150 years of psychological research into what makes learning more effective. We speculate that the winning entry will make use of many of these effects, and perhaps others hitherto not discovered: Spacing effects; repetition effects; mnemonics; testing effects; modality effects; association effects; deep/elaborative processing effects; difficulty effects; context effects; error effects; time-of-day effects.

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