Three, that’s the magic number



Fascinating article in The Guardian this morning by Patrick Barkham about the progressive learning methods being tested out at Monkseaton high school in Tyneside. Using a system developed by the school’s head teacher, Paul Kelley, the school is trialling ‘Spaced Learning’, a method of teaching which involves holding 90 minute long lectures (accompanied by PowerPoint slides), that consist of the same materials repeated three times, with a break in between each in which pupils have to carry out physical tasks such as juggling, plate spinning etc. The system itself is based on research conducted by an American scientist, Douglas Fields, whose experiments with the removed and sustained hippocampuses of lab rats were able to determine that cells in the brain were most quickly able to form strengthened synapses (i.e. long term memories) when exposed to stimulation three times, with each stimulation interspersed with a ten minute break.

The results of applying Fields’ findings to the school’s pupils’ learning environment has, for the most part, been incredible. To quote the article –

‘A series of careful trials yielded fascinating results: 48 year 9 pupils who had not covered any part of the GCSE science syllabus were given a complete biology module in a 90-minute spaced learning lesson. A week later, they took the relevant GCSE multiple-choice exam (a year earlier than normal). Twelve months on, the same set of pupils took another GCSE science paper after a conventional four months of study. While average scores for the second paper were higher (68% versus 58%), more than a quarter of the pupils scored higher after spaced learning than through conventional study. Despite studying for just 90 minutes with spaced learning, 80% of the class of 13- and 14-year-olds got at least a D grade.’

These results suggest that programming the brain to create long term memories can be achieved relatively quickly under the right conditions (although many people, as included later on the article, dispute that ‘Spaced Learning’ could be some sort of silver bullet). The results of studies like this could have serious implications for advertisers and media planners (although I’m sure much of any insight garnered from work such as this would have been naturally brought into focus by years of practice, if not stated so explicitly). The article doesn’t really touch on why the ten minute breaks must consist of exercise, but I would presume that its effect would be to engage different parts of the brain so that the hippocampus can rest, which might also pose problems for its application. Frequency of message is always touted as a strength of any media plan, but Fields’ study suggests that perhaps by reducing frequency but increasing impact advertisers could more firmly anchor themselves within consumers’ minds.


For example, Lucozade often use 6 sheets, larger posters and other traditional media around train stations and other areas designed to hit commuters and gym users. What if, instead of booking a fortnight’s space in and around these areas, they designed experiential marketing which would take place in major train stations frequently travelled between by commuters? I’m imagining, for example, a Lucozade stand with a treadmill as its centre-piece, with a famous athlete running on it, surrounded by large clocks showing how long they’ve been running for in a major train station in central London. Supporting this centre-piece would be large screens relaying a live feed to Lucozade screens based in major stations with routes into the central station, also displaying a clock.

Commuters are thereby hit by the message once on their way in, rest on the train, see the main event, walk to work, are hit by the occasional live feed being broadcast to video screens across the city, and are then able to follow the athletes progress on a website with a live feed attached (and will probably again be hit the next day when the freesheets report on what went on).

Expensive? Massively – but in a situation where increasing levels of advertising force our brains to skip over masses of information coming at us simply to get from A to B (it may be old but Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life still has a lot to teach us, possibly more than ever before), impact as well as carefully implemented repetition will be key in winning the battle for the minds of consumers.


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One Response to “Three, that’s the magic number”

  1. Paul Kelley Says:

    Very interesting- never thought of it like that – though in my book Making Minds I speculated about how widely this kind of approach could be applied.

    I rather suspect that advertisers and marketing people know a good deal more about learning and education than people in schools do (me included).

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