Making It Stick - assimilating knowledge through spaced learning



“Don’t know much about the French I took.”


Sam Cooke’s line from his hit song, Wonderful World, could have been written by me. After three years of taking French class in high school (getting all A’s, by the way), it is still foreign to me. As Steve Martin quipped, “It’s like they have a different word for everything!”


If I had taken advantage of the spacing effect, I would recall much more of "the French I took" than I do today.


What is the spacing effect?

The spacing effect is a learning phenomenon that demonstrates how repeated learning spaced out over time intervals is the most effective way to retain information, especially long-term. It is a well-known method and has been massively studied for many years.


But even though it is also wildly successful, it is mostly underutilized.


Massed learning, also known as cramming, is the opposite of spaced learning. It can work for passing a test but is not effective if you want to retain what you learn. In fact, beyond getting a good grade, the time you spend learning by cramming is mostly wasted. Perhaps the grade is the only thing that matters (and sometimes it is!), but if you need to use and build on your knowledge, spaced learning is a better option.


The spacing effect was first identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), a German psychologist and memory research specialist. He not only studied how we remember but more importantly - how we forget. He found that the process of forgetting can be slowed by recalling or revisiting the information later at various intervals.


One study suggests that spaced repetitions engage different neurophysiological mechanisms than massed repetitions.


Why it works

By using spaced intervals you are not fighting against your brain but taking advantage of its inherent nature. Language learning expert, Gabriel Wyner, wrote, “Our brains are designed to think and automatically hold onto what’s important.” By repeatedly recalling information over time, you are telling your brain what is important.


It also helps with focus. A 2016 study by Janet Metcalfe and Judy Xu found that less mind wandering happens during spaced learning. “...people are 'on task' less fully when the stimuli are massed rather than spaced.”


Spaced learning is effective for learning and remembering everything from math formulas to new skills to new terminology. It also makes us remember products and brands better, which is why advertisers have been using it in ad scheduling for decades.


Using spaced learning is not that difficult - studies show that even sea slugs can do it! But it is harder than not doing it. It takes deliberate planning, persistence and time investment to be successful.


Putting it into practice

Here are some ways to take advantage of the spacing effect:


1) Keep the information organized so that it is easy to access later. Flashcards are a great old school method and there are also SRS (spaced repetition software) tools such as Anki and SuperMemo.


2) Set up a review schedule. Without planning and scheduling, you are unlikely to stay on track. The first review should be soon after the original learning, with each successive session at a greater interval (such as 1 hour, then 1 day, 2 days, a week, a month, etc.)


3) Record your progress and Include positive reinforcement, implementing a point system or other positive feedback mechanism. Upward progress motivates learning.


4) Keep your sessions short. Recommended session length depends on the individual, but 30 minutes tends to work well. Remember to take breaks between sessions.


If something is important enough to you to spend the time to learn in the first place, then don’t waste that time by forgetting what you learned. Plan ahead to use spaced learning to increase retention and improve your performance.


Think well and be well.


- Steve Haffner


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