Announcing the launch of the Memrise Prize

The Memrise Prize

We’re delighted to announce that we’re launching The Memrise Prize, a new applied learning-science competition, in collaboration with Prof David Shanks and Dr. Rosalind Potts of UCL psychology department.

Memrise Prize

The $10k prize will be awarded to the best learning system that helps normal adults memorise (up to) 80 foreign words in the course of an hour, with the test occurring one week later. Entries are to be in the form of a learning methodology combined with empirical data from a controlled experiment, showing how this learning methodology outperforms a baseline learning condition (which we provide).

Some reasons why we’re so excited

The Memrise Prize is the first of its kind in the domain of learning, and it aims to create a rigorous forum in which the best possible methodologies for learning new information may be proposed and evaluated; we hope that it will act as an inspiration to, and stimulus for, invention and knowledge-sharing around the extraordinarily consequential question of how we humans can learn best.

The competition will be overseen by a board of some of the world’s most distinguished cognitive scientists, and, after the initial submissions, the winner will be determined when the finalists’ learning systems are put to the test on Memrise, and the data collected from tens of thousand of Memrise learners out in the real world learning on our website. For more information on how the competition will work, see here .

Memrise is, of course, directly inspired by public-domain memory research, and most indebted to the work of the scientists and inventors who elucidated the principles on which our system is built- such as mnemonics, spaced repetition, and the testing effect.

We believe the Memrise Prize can help extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge on how we humans can learn best, and can contribute to better, more rigorous discourse on the subject. The more that is known, and the more such knowledge is widely shared and well understood, the better for everyone- whether scientists, education startups, teachers, or learners.

We expect a lot of cognitive scientists to enter the competition, but we also hope that at least one Memrise learner will be able to make a contribution.

Why a Prize Competition?

One might ask why a Prize Competition is relevant to, let alone necessary for, the advancement of applied knowledge in the field of learning science.

We think there are at least two key reasons.

a) Cognitive science simply doesn’t know (yet)

First, cognitive science has no clear answer for what might in fact be the most powerful learning method in a context like this.

This is perhaps somewhat surprising. After all, this now very advanced discipline has empirically identified literally hundreds of ways in which learning effectiveness can be positively or negatively influenced. There’s a spectacular amount of knowledge of how to improve memory that’s been accumulated, and no little understanding of the mechanisms that underlie such improvements.

But how large these effects are in relation to each other, and what their best combination might be, remains rather unexamined. Cognitive science is occupied with understanding the causal mechanisms of the brain, and only indirectly how it performs best. We simply don’t know what the best combination of the many possible strategies and techniques is. One way of saying this, is that we have lots of ingredients, but no consensus on the best recipe.

In this way, we expect the winning entry to draw heavily from ideas present in the scientific literature, but to do so in unpredictable ways. There’s really no way of knowing which ingredients will be chosen and in what combination; and there’s every chance that some inventive competitor will tap a neglected or indeed undiscovered phenomenon to help their formula beat off the competition.

b) Prize competitions have genius, power and magic in them

The second reason we are so excited by the prospects of the Memrise Prize to drive forward knowledge in this area, is in the nature and history of prize competitions, which have a remarkable capacity to stimulate innovation, and push boundaries. Here in the UK, the legendary 18th century Longitude Prize is part of national folklore, and the more recent Ansari Xprize for space travel in the US attracted much attention and innovation to the now burgeoning industry of commercial space travel.

One anecdotal reason we believe that quite spectacular improvements to our knowledge of learning technology may be possible through the practical research program represented by the Memrise Prize is the example of another of Memrise’s inspirations, the World Memory Championships- a prize competition for individuals who wish to push the boundaries of their memory.

Since 1990, competitors from around the world have gathered once a year to battle it out in a gruelling set of memorisation tasks, under strict conditions, to prove themselves the world’s greatest memoriser. Challenges range from remembering shuffled packs of cards, to very long numbers, to hundred of names and faces.

Over the course of the 25 years over which the competition has taken place, the records for each of the ten mnemonic challenges that comprise these championships have been relentlessly improved: the record for memorising a shuffled deck of cards, which in 1990 stood at a thoroughly impressive 149 seconds, is now a scarcely believable 21.19 seconds; the most digits memorised in an hour has in the same period risen from a few hundred to more than 2,650. These records shown no signs of reaching a plateau, as the graphs below indicate:

Records in memory science

I don’t think that there’d be anyone on the planet who’d have predicted in 1990 that these records could improve in such fashion.

For many years, I competed in these championships, and saw first hand how the combination of ruthless competition and generous sharing has the capacity to push forward practical achievement at break-neck speed.

Every year, competitors would have honed some cunning new method, strategy or training technique for boosting their learning; every year, some of those competitors would manage something beyond what anyone else thought possible; and, because of the spirit of openness and collaboration (with some comic exceptions) they’d share how they did it, so that other people could give it a go. And the next year, some of their rivals would be making use of the same mental tool.

The great thing about the pure competition format here is that the clear data provided by a learner’s empirically measured performance mean that the techniques don’t need to be debated for their theoretical merits, or even understood with any sophistication: if something works, that will show in the data, and it will be adopted.

As a practical research program, then, the competition format has a wonderful capacity to stimulate almost unthinkably speedy progress.

We hope that such daring innovation, competitiveness and knowledge sharing will be hallmarks of the Memrise Prize too. And there’s every reason to hope that we may discover methods that promote learning speeds that go beyond anything that one would currently imagine to be possible.

How to enter the Memrise Prize

We would love to see entries from laboratories, students, lone inventors, independent learners, teachers, school children, fellow entrepreneurs in the ed-tech space; anyone may enter, by themselves or in a team; running the experiments to enter can be quite simple; and there’s no special advantage to having a PhD in cognitive science.

The competition rules and materials download automatically when you click here. And we have a Facebook page for the competition which will be a focus for discussion and updates, for idea sharing (for those of a magnanimous mindset) and even, perhaps, for the formation of teams.

We look forward to the evolution of this competition. If you have any questions on entering, you can email us at science@memrise.com.

May the battle begin!


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