For example, I'm learning geography using the spaced repetition method. I have some program which asks me questions like, "In which country Melbourne is located?", and I have to recall the country (assuming I've studied the material and at least once seen Melbourne on the map). This program also gives me two possible hints when I can't recall the answer:

  • If I choose "obvious hint" it says "kangaroo", which for me is a straight giveaway for "Australia".
  • If I choose "vague hint" it says "hell". After thinking a while, I may come up with this: "There's the Devil in Hell. There's an animal called Tasmanian Devil, which lives on the island Tasmania, which is near the Australia."

The idea in both cases is to not show the answer right away when I can't recall it, but rather force me (more or less) to try recalling it once again, but now with some additional information.


  1. Do obvious hints help memorization at all? As you saw, the hint "Australia" is as good as just showing me the answer, but maybe it helps building association in my memory which helps recalling the answer later.
  2. Do vague hints help more? I assume yes, since they trigger some associations in my memory, but I have no proofs.

Of course, the "obviousness" of a hint is very subjective, but the idea behind it should be clear: "obvious" hints are just one or two associations away from answers, while "vague" ones form longer association chains.

EDIT: There is a related question with an answer which mentions elaborative rehearsal and depth of processing, but I'm not sure if those processes are involved here, since hints are mostly related to an answer ("Kangaroos live in Australia"), not a question ("kangaroos" and "Melbourne" are not associated in my memories, neither do "hell" and "Melbourne").


Short answer: Based on my assessment of the literature, I would say that a vague hint leaves room for retrieval practice, and will therefore likely elicit a testing effect. An obvious hint does not, and will therefore likely help recognition, but not recall.


Spaced repetition refers to the practice of combining two well-known memory effects, namely the spacing effect and the testing effect, typically implemented in some form of flash cards.

Testing effect

The testing effect aspect of spaced repetition is highly relevant. It refers to the finding that retrieval practice leads to improved long-term recall (cf. recognition) ability for a practiced item compared to non-practiced items.

Modern theories on the testing effect tend to take the view that the testing effect represents a complex, active process in the brain rather than simple association formation or Hebbian learning. A critical meta-analysis of the recent testing effect literature unsurprisingly found support for the testing effect's existence, as well as some support for effortful processing as a contributing factor (Eisenkraemer, Jaeger and Stein, 2013). They did not find support for semantic elaboration theories (i.e., new/re-weighted brain associations).

Additional support for the testing effect as an active process comes from the fact that associated non-practiced items may be actively inhibited by retrieval practice, a phenomenon known as retrieval-induced forgetting (Anderson, Bjork and Bjork, 1994). We currently do not know much more than that the testing effect happens when we engage in retrieval practice. I know researchers who are studying exactly this, but at this point, I'm unfortunately not comfortable with discussing their thoughts or unpublished work.

Spacing effect

I'm mostly including this for completeness' sake. The spacing effect was discovered by Herman Ebbinghaus in the 1880's and is one of the oldest phenomena studied in psychology. It refers to the tendency for animals to retain items presented over a longer period relatively better than when presentation of the same items is massed over a single brief period. It doesn't have any relation to the use of hints in spaced repetition learning, at least not one that I can think of.


  • Anderson, M. C., Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1994). Remembering can cause forgetting: retrieval dynamics in long-term memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20(5), 1063.
  • Eisenkraemer, R. E., Jaeger, A., & Stein, L. M. (2013). A Systematic Review of the Testing Effect in Learning. Paidéia (Ribeirão Preto), 23(56), 397-406.
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    $\begingroup$ Your short answer seems to be more of a hypothesis based on a (reasonable) assessment of the literature. I think it would be a good idea to make that clear. $\endgroup$ Apr 28 '15 at 12:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Josh Updated. Thanks for the feedback, that is exactly what the short answer is. $\endgroup$ Apr 28 '15 at 12:35

I can't yet comment, unfortunately, but for the answers to your questions I have to refer you back to your link. and to the references listed in the article. Along with this do a little exercise with a family member or a friend, but preferably someone who is not aware of your studying of Geography.

Both of you do the following:

 Write down 5 cities from around the world that 
 are really obscure and not commonly known
 Write one vague hint and one direct hint for each
 Then give each other the questions and the hints
 Repeat this the next day, then again in two days, then again in three...
 if you really want you can repeat this for up to a 
 total of 15 days which will have then given you 5 total tries, 
 but more importantly you will now have actual proof of whether 
 this works for your and in general.

Granted, with 5 cities you will probably remember them simply because of repetition, spaced or otherwise, and because they are too few. This is a technique that will work particularly if the hints are images, and so looking on a map can be a good way to store the information in memory in such a way as to make recall easier later.

Either way I think the answer is yes and it seems that it worked for you already since you did actually affirmatively answer your question.

P.S.: Just found this.

  • $\begingroup$ As for experiment you describe, I don't think it would be reliable, because, like you've said, the small number of test subjects, size of material being studied, and also lack of proper study methods (blind experiment, etc.). It seems like it works for me, but it can be just my imagination. $\endgroup$
    – scriptin
    Mar 28 '15 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ As for your second link - it sheds some light on the topic, but I don't think it answers my questions. I've read it before, which made me more confident about my second question, but my first question is focused on the fact that hint is so obvious that elaborative rehearsal process is probably not even involved. $\endgroup$
    – scriptin
    Mar 28 '15 at 11:02
  • $\begingroup$ Well, depending on how you look at the world, ultimately our entire reality "can just be imagination", especially if you consider that as the brain processes what we experience; it all is just a bunch of images associated with emotional memory, triggered by the experience of the experience that you are experiencing at any one time. Either way - good luck with your biology! $\endgroup$
    – aleksandar
    Mar 29 '15 at 23:47

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