Spaced repetition is the cornerstone of effective learning

· 4 min read
Spaced repetition is the cornerstone of effective learning

Does the following series of events sound familiar:

You are going to study for the exam for a total of 10 hours and the exam is in five days. You plan your study schedule so that you study for 2 hours every day and get an A on the exam.

In reality, on the last night before the exam, you wake up in the middle of other things, admitting that it’s finally time to start studying. You study for six hours until the early hours of the morning, but to be honest, you don’t have much memory of the last two hours. You wake up after a few hours of sleep and, over your breakfast, try to read through your notes a few more times.

I’m sure every learner is familiar with this phenomenon. We would have a much easier time if we could just stick to our original plan and study the subject in small chunks. This tactic would also be significantly more effective in terms of memorization and learning.

Spaced repetition has been shown time and time again to be one of the learning methods most correlated with academic performance.

The reasons for this are numerous:

1 - Maintaining alertness

Our brains are an amazing whole, but they can’t do everything. For example, receiving and storing information becomes more and more difficult the more and longer you try to cram it all in within a short window of time.

This is precisely why cognitively challenging things don’t really come naturally in the evening. The brain has already had a full day’s work and could do with a rest and a chance to organize what it has learned in peace. A similar phenomenon occurs in long study sessions. Our attention span is impaired and we have to use more and more willpower to concentrate.

2 - Structuring knowledge

Moreover, information is no longer effectively absorbed after a certain saturation point, especially if you repeatedly study the same subject. So in long sessions, you may be studying basically in vain and the new information will no longer sink in.

Distributed learning prevents information overload and allows the brain time to structure and organize information. Long-term memory storage occurs between learning sessions at rest, and it is the time between sessions and the frequency of repetition that determines how much of the information is retained permanently. The information learned is gradually forgotten, but a steady repetition allows it to be recalled and the memory retained.

3 - Stress relief

A small amount of stress is always appropriate when we are doing something difficult within a time constraint. Stress improves performance and helps focus attention.

Chronic stress and the resulting outright panic, on the other hand, will not help you achieve your learning goals. Spaced repetition does not completely eliminate exam stress, but it does spread it out over a longer period of time with each session and, best of all, eliminates the panic reactions of the last night and the morning of the exam. Needless to say, you’ll certainly prefer to go into the exam feeling refreshed and relaxed rather than tired and in a state of complete panic.

4 - Time management

By breaking learning sessions into short bursts, you can also take control of your schedule. You may find during the first few sessions that you need much more time than you had originally planned. You may also discover which areas need more revision, and which are already coming along well. This will give you plenty of time to react and adapt your schedule to the situation.

Isn’t it extraordinary that we practice almost everything but formal learning through spaced repetition? For example, it would be a very strange idea to practice football by playing once a month for 8 hours straight. Instead, two hours of training a week seems a perfectly normal way to develop at an amateur level. Similarly, imagine a theater performance where the actors rehearse through the play for the first time in dress rehearsal, with a marathon session.

How to spread your studies

Spreading out your studies over time seems obvious, but in practice, it is very often not done, at least for the following reasons:

  1. Studying, and especially starting, is difficult and discouraging
  2. Traditional teaching methods encourage you to learn one thing at a time and move on to the next. There is no time for repetition and active recall
  3. Massive sessions just before a test or exam seem effective because much of the knowledge is retained in working memory. However, they are not structured effectively.

The problem is therefore mainly at the practical level, when we postpone studying until the last opportunity. By changing your study routine, you will be much better able to start working intensively and also to concentrate on the essentials. At first, adopting any new routine is challenging, but with repetition, you will find that new habits take hold surprisingly quickly.

At the very least, try to implement and develop the following things in your own learning, preferably one at a time:

  • Always plan your study calendar in advance on at least two different time scales: a long-term plan and goals, and a daily plan.
  • For each study topic, plan the following outlines. This will ensure that the subject is not only studied but also learned.
    • Study phase
    • Taking notes and memorizing
    • Review and recall
  • Use study techniques that encourage active learning and spaced repetition. Study cards and self-testing are the best of these.
  • Spend the majority of your revision time on subjects that you have not yet fully mastered. Flashcards or similar active techniques are also a good support in this work.
  • Try to study at regular and pre-scheduled times.
  • Don’t study everything in a linear fashion from start to finish, but move dynamically from one type of task to another, or even to a different subject altogether. This has been found to be the most effective method for the brain to learn.
  • No one has time to do everything perfectly. Optimize your time and work through the topics as quickly as possible. Prioritize the most important topics.

You can learn more about distributed learning in our several lessons on the learning-techniques and planning.

Thanks for reading and have fun learning!