With everyone returning to school, now is as good a time as any to remind everyone of what we already know. Cramming does not work. Studying late into the night doesn’t work. Surrounding yourself with notes, textbooks, and assorted paper in the hopes of passively absorbing knowledge through osmosis doesn’t work either. What’s a student to do?
Smart learners leverage what is called the spacing effect, which states that, in the long term, studying material over multiple periods of time is more effective than studying repeatedly at one time. If cramming is considered a massed presentation where you review everything all at once, then the alternative–spaced presentation or distributed practice–enables deeper mastery of more difficult material.
Back in 1970, experimental psychologist Arthur W. Melton delved into The Situation with Respect to the Spacing of Repetitions and Memory, concluding that “the effects of distributed practice on the remembering of verbal items and the relations between them are available in sufficient magnitude, with sufficient replicability, and with sufficient variability in a variety of experimental situations, to warrant intensive systematic investigation and intensive theoretic efforts.” This situation, as it were, has been advanced in many ways since then, notably in the Leitner system of flashcard study and Pimsleur Language Programs.
How can you make spaced repetition work for you? Apart from the Leitner system, a variety of spacing systems exist on a variety of platforms. But you don’t need to adopt a formal structure to benefit from spaced repetition if you implement some fundamental guidelines:
1. Start studying well before you’ll require a particular knowledge or skill.
2. Wait a day or so until you start forgetting what you’ve studied.
3. Study the material again.
4. Wait again, for a day or longer.
5. Repeat with successively longer intervals between practice or presentations.
6. Impress everyone with your obvious mastery of the material.
Learning may not always be easy, but you can make a challenging process easier by exploiting the spacing effect. Combine this patient, scientific approach to studying with the power of the testing effect, and you’ll be unstoppable!