This post is part of a series challenging our assumptions about learning techniques. We’re giving you up to date information from current research into learning to help you learn more effectively. Check out the previous post in this series and read the most recent one below.
To retain information well it’s better to learn a topic consistently and then leave it, than it is to learn a topic and come back to it once you have started to forget it a bit.
THIS IS FALSE.
Exams are just a few months away (sorry, but it’s true). If you feel like you’re behind all hope is not lost. This learning hack is for those of you who feel like you want to pick up your game but are worried that you’re starting too late. As an added bonus, it will also help you remember information beyond your exam.
While going over a topic again and again in a concentrated period of time might allow us to reproduce material, it does not embed it effectively into our long-term memory. The best way to really let that information sink in and take hold is by being tested on it at increasingly longer intervals. We call this spaced repetition. Spaced repetition means that just as you are starting to forget a topic you will be tested on it, forcing the brain to search for the answer. The effort exerted cements the knowledge in the brain, letting students retain information instead of it slipping away after the exam has been taken.
Think of it like this: holding knowledge in your brain is like carrying a bucket of water. Imagine you and your friend are carrying buckets of water. You’re carrying the buckets to a nearby village, but both buckets have a small hole. You notice that water is starting to seep out of your bucket, but, luckily, not enough is seeping out to stop you from reaching the village with enough water. Your friend has the same problem, but as the water starts to seep out, they decide to patch up the hole. Next time the water starts to seep out of the hole it does so more slowly. So your friend patches it up further.
The next day you go back to the well to get some more water. The hole in your bucket is worse for wear and the water gushes out. Your friend, however, is well on their way to the next village, laughing into the sunset.
In this analogy, what you are doing is like rote learning, while what your friend is doing is like spaced repetition. At the end of the day, it’s your friend who has the last laugh because their continuous efforts to test themselves on a topic (patch up the bucket) mean that the knowledge (water) can be enjoyed well beyond the exam.
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