Netflix, binge-watching & the spacing effect

What does binge-watching the latest Netflix addition have to do with teaching and learning? 

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a curious phenomenon. Initially, I put it down to the inevitable slow decline of my cognitive functions as I age, but being the curious kind of person I am (and not being entirely comfortable with the I’m just getting old explanation), I wanted to investigate the alternatives.

The Problem

It all has to do with the way I (and so many others) watch television. I’m more likely now to catch up on TV programs and to ‘binge-watch’ on Netflix. The problem I seem to have is that I can’t always remember what I’ve watched and really have to make an effort to recall what the program was about – I’ve even started watching something before realising that I’ve actually already sat through all ten episodes.

Curiously, I recall more about TV programs I watched when I was younger, so I assumed I was just getting a bit confused in my old age. I can’t recall every episode of Blake’s 7, but I can still conjure up images of the main characters in my mind and I have the gist of the storyline, yet I struggle to recall anything about Altered Carbon or Nightflyers (and I only watched the latter a few weeks ago).

So I began to wonder if this had anything to do with the way I was watching TV, rather than any age-related memory impairment.

The Research

Luckily, researchers at the University of Melbourne looked into this very phenomenon back in 2017. Jared Horvath and his colleagues had volunteers watch the BBC Cold War drama The Game. They split their participants into three groups, with one group watching all six episodes is succession (the binge-watching group), one group watching on a daily bases and the third weekly.

Participants were then asked to complete a questionnaire at intervals of 24 hours, one week and 140 days.

Results revealed two very interesting factors. First of all, the binge-watching group consistently rated The Game as less enjoyable than the other two groups. Secondly, the binge-watchers showed the sharpest decline in memory recognition 140 days following the final episode.

Binge-watching is like cramming

Watching each episode of a TV show one after the other in short succession is like cramming for a test; you might manage to hold onto some of the information for a short period of time, but the memories are less likely to stick. This is most likely because memories take time to embed and we often have to forget some of the information for memory to operate effectively. If the next episode has a re-cap (the previously on… type of thing), we are gently nudged into recalling what had happened in the previous episode.

There’s probably an added factor here as well. The anticipation of waiting for the next episode creates an emotional cue. As the time and day get closer we look forward to the next instalment. We might also talk about the program to friends, family and work colleagues and this will re-enforce the memory and add to the emotional energy – the I can’t wait to see what happens response. 

Netflix and teaching & learning

Binge-watching is to cramming as weekly viewing is to distributed practice (often referred to as the spacing effect).

Distributed practice dictates that ‘for any material, information is better remembered if there is a larger rather than smaller interval between the first time it is studied and the second’ (Psychology in the Classroom, p17). This means that covering to-be-learned information is a little like binge-watching Orange is the New Black, chances are you’ve forgotten most of the plot within a few days.

Jonathan Firth has produced a useful resource to help teachers implement spacing in their classroom:

Teacher’s Brief Guide to Spacing

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