Sounds too good to be true right? But science has proved time and time again that spacing out your learning sessions over a period of time is a far more effective way to study than trying to do it all at once.
A History of Learning and Memory
Back in the 1880s a scientist called Ebbinghaus began conducting a series of experiments on the effect of time on memory. To do this he wrote out hundreds of ‘nonsense syllables’ into lists of 12 and tested his ability to recall them. What he found, unsurprisingly, was that over time the nonsense words became harder to remember. He plotted his results on a graph and called his findings The Curve of Forgetting.
Now if Ebbinghaus had left his experiments there, he probably wouldn’t have been remembered – we all know instinctively that we forget things over time. But throughout his research he actually came across what is still one of the single most important discoveries in learning science to date.
Ebbinghaus wanted to know how much work it would take before he could reliably remember something. He found that it took 68 repetitions of a list of nonsense syllables before he could score 100% on a test that he gave himself a week later. Again, probably nothing new there – we’re all familiar with the idea that the more we repeat something, the more likely it is to stick in our minds.
But he also found that he could score 100% on a test with just 38 repetitions, if he spaced these repetitions out. So for example, he might do 13 repetitions one day, 13 the next and 12 the day after. That’s nearly half the time studying, for the same result – something that should be attractive to all of us!
Ebbinghaus had stumbled on something we now call Spaced Learning. Science has looked further into this discovery and found that there are actually optimal intervals for spacing out your learning. Say you want to learn a set of new vocabulary in a new language. For optimal performance, come back to material you want to learn at intervals of one day, one week, then one month.
Why it works
You might have heard before the idea that the more you think a thought, the more deeply engrained it becomes in your mind. You could see these thoughts like pathways through a field of grass – the more you walk down them the more deeply engrained they become.
As far as learning is concerned – let’s say you need to remember the dates for a number of important law cases. If you revisit the information every day, well, it’s like your walking down that same path every day. The path doesn’t change too much, because it was there yesterday as well. But let’s say you leave it for a week. When you come back to it the path has nearly overgrown and you’re going to have to work a bit harder to get through that grass. Perhaps you’ll have to get a machete out, or at least some bigger boots. But at the end of that hard work, you’re going to have a much deeper pathway – one that’s easier to get down next time you come along. The harder you have to work to retrieve information, the longer it will stick in your mind.
This is the basis of a theory of learning developed by Professor Robert Bjork called ‘Desired Difficulty’. Essentially, the harder you make learning for yourself, the more effective it will be. By spacing sessions out, you are naturally making it harder for yourself to remember the material. (To do this most effectively, give yourself a test on the material rather then jumping straight in and reading it again. More on the power of testing in future posts).
Whenever you study something new, make a note in a calendar or diary to revise that material at a later date. Remember, the first interval should be fairly short, then gradually make them longer. 1 day, 3 days, 1 week, 1 month is a good ratio to try first. You don’t have to follow these exact ratios – any spacing is better than none.
If you’re not the sort of person that keeps a diary or calendar there is some great software that can help you stay organised.
https://www.supermemo.com/ helps you schedule your revision calendar.
http://ankisrs.net/ is another one that’s been recommended – I haven’t spent too much time looking at this, but I think you can schedule your flashcard reminders.
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