On Learning Methods

Two years ago, I was googling for iPad recommendations. Then magically I started seeing all the iPad related videos on my YouTube feed. One such recommendation was Ali Abdaal’s YouTube channel. I liked the style and delivery and was stalking his contents. That’s how I stumbled across his videos on Active Recall and Spaced repetition which he evangelized as evidence-based revision tips/ study techniques. It immediately reminded me of my childhood and gave me a content idea for my blog. But as usual, other YouTube videos became a priority and this idea went out of the radar. The other day, I was thinking of signing up for professional certification and the thought about the active recall and spaced repetition popped up. It’s weird how your brain magically pops-up recommendations on your thought-feed magically like YouTube. 

Active Recall

According to Wikipedia, Active Recall, also known as Testing Effect, suggests that long term memory is increased when some of the learning periods are devoted to retrieving information from memory. The way to achieve this is by repeatedly testing yourself on the subject. 

Spaced Repetition

According to Wikipedia again (Thank you Jimmy Wales), Spaced Repetition, also known as spaced rehearsal, spaced retrieval and a zillion other names, is a revision technique using the Spacing effect. The spacing effect demonstrates that learning is more effective when study sessions are spaced out. This effect shows that more information is encoded into long-term memory by spaced study sessions, also known as spaced repetition or spaced presentation

The flashcards concept is based on this and you can find a tonne of materials, software and apps using this concept. 

What does it have to do with my childhood, you ask? There are two things.

In South India, a lot of importance is given to formal education. You can see schools and parents taking education seriously and aiming for high scores. In a normal day to day conversation, “What was your rank in the last exam?” is the second question any visiting relative would ask after “How are you?”. This would be followed up by unsolicited advice or congratulations depending on your rank. The schools use tests heavily as a tool for evaluation. And for critical years where you have the board exams, a major part of the year is dedicated just for the revision exams as it leads up to the final exam. This was one of the things that I got reminded of. 

The second one is the traditional learning method called Sandhai Murai and the revision method called Thiruvai which is used to teach Nalayira Divya Prabandham. Nalayira Divya Prabadham is a collection of 4000 Tamil Verses sung by 12 Alwars in praise of Lord Vishnu, which appears to have been compiled between the 9th and 10th centuries. As kids, me and my brothers were sent to these classes to learn the verses so that they can be recited on special occasions or even daily across various temples. 

Sandhai Murai

Sandhai murai is the mechanism that is used to teach/learn the Prabhandams. So how does it work? Around 50 verses are taught at a time, with most of the verses being 4 lines. The learning cycles depend on the instructor but the ones that I went to were of 14 days. These 14 days are split into 4,4,3,3. 

Days 1-4: Half lines

Day 5-8: Full lines

Day 9-11: Two lines

Day 12-14: Four lines or One verse. 

The guru recites once and the pupils recite thrice. For Day 1, the guru says the half-line and the pupils repeat it three times. This continues for all 50 verses each day for the next four days. On Day 5, the guru says one full line of the verse once and the pupils repeat it three times. This goes on for all 50 verses each day for the next four days and so on. At the end of the 14 days, the next cycle begins and the next set of 50 verses are taught. By the end of each cycle, due to the repetitions all along, it is almost etched in your memory. In some places, they don’t allow you to read from the book and it has to be auditory learning. This whole process is based on repetition. 

Thiruvai

I don’t know what is the full form of this but it is referred to as Thiruvai commonly. While Sandhai murai is active learning of new verses through a guru, thiruvai is a repetitive practice of the verses already learnt. While it is flexible and usually left up to the pupil, there are some methods that are commonly used. 

One of the methods employed is that, each day, after learning the 50 new verses, students repeat the 50 verses they learnt in the last cycle 3 times each. In the first cycle, they learn the 50 verses. In the next cycle, they learn 50 new verses plus practice the 50 verses they learnt in the last cycle.

Another method used is after the first cycle is over, three additional days are reserved to practice the 50 verses by repeating them 10 times each day before starting the next cycle. 

These verses are also repeated in temples on various occasions all throughout the year. 

Another method uses the Nakshatra or “stars”. In Hinduism, we have 27 stars. Each day is associated with one star. After 27 days, the cycle repeats. When I grew up, the combination of the Tamil Month and the star during the birth is what was considered my birthday (Jenma Nakshatra = Birth Star). Not the date of birth based on the Gregorian calendar. We still follow this and elders wish only on the “star” birthday and not on the date of birth. So, each month and star is associated with some temple or some Alwars. Based on this, a thiruvai calendar was created to practice all 4000 verses in 27 days. Each day, Prabandham(s) related to the temple or Alwars associated with the star of that day are practised to honour them. Then the cycle repeats.

There are two kinds of testing. Some gurus test their students by randomly asking a verse and students have to recite that verse. They do this until the students have memorised them so well that they can recite it correctly even when they are woken up from sleep. But the real test is when you recite it as a group in the temple during special occasions in front of a crowd assembled. 

This whole Sandhai and Thiruvai concept is completely based on the  active recall and spaced repetition. I don’t know the timeline but these practises must have been in existence for centuries now. The ancestors did not publish their research piece on why this method works but they simply knew it would work. 

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