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Spaced Repetition: Learn Anything and Make it Stick

We’ve all been through cramming intense study sessions. But let’s be honest, those late-night dates with textbooks aren’t just not romantic; they’re also terribly ineffective. Sadly, no one teaches us how to learn, or even to love learning (in fact, school might do the opposite). This is where the technique called spaced repetition comes in to ‘neurohack’ the obsolete study methods. 

Understanding Brain and Memory

Our brains are marvelous, yet forgetful machines. Having a strong memory in the age of ADHD is hard to overrate. Even though memorization has gotten a bad rap in academic circles recently, it is what gives us a foundation to reason about things. Moreover, cognitive science shows we need memorization for developing critical thinking, creativity and idea generation.

The skill of memorization is essential for language learning, mastering skills, going through a new course of lectures, or just digging deep into subjects. Even the Ancient Greek goddess of memory was responsible for a whole bunch of higher mental functions.

Each new concept or fact that we learn builds new neural connections in our brain’s complex labyrinth. Without regular revisiting, these paths can fade, similar to trails in a forest that disappear if not frequently traveled.

This is why cramming is completely misaligned with how the brain learns. The difficulty of developing long term memory is a real struggle nowadays, but this article has the answer. Moreover, it has a scientific technique for boosting your learning capacities.

The Science of Spaced Repetition

Basically, spaced repetition means it’s better to take a list of items to learn, and study them in sessions that are spaced out (for example, 15 minutes every day for two weeks), rather than three hours in one day.  

Now, since we agree on the fact that memory is not a storage but a process, how do we actually improve our learning skills?

In fact, with the spaced repetition system, it’s possible to double your learning capacity. Let’s get nerdy (in a cool way) to understand how spaced repetition works. Because it does.

In short, spaced repetition = testing + time.

The Forgetting Curve

To better understand this definition, let’s take a look at the Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve. It’s named after Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German science journalist and a psychologist back in the 19th century, who did research on memory and learning. 

Ebbinghaus found that within just one hour of learning something, we forget about half of it. And after a day, the retention rate drops to around 30%. And after a month, it can go lower than 20%!

The forgetting curve shows that if we want to remember things for a long time, we need to refresh our knowledge, gradually increasing intervals between sessions of recalling information.

Otherwise, those late night cramming sessions are just desperate short-term solutions that don’t add much to genuine intellectual confidence.  

The Evolution of Spaced Repetition

Initially, psychologists in the 19th century noted that learning is more effective when spread out over time, rather than crammed in a short period and we already mentioned Ebbinghaus’ “Forgetting Curve” which we touched upon earlier. 

Moving into the 20th century, the Leitner System, developed by German scientist Sebastian Leitner in the 1970s, brought a more structured approach. Leitner’s method used flashcards to categorize information based on the learner’s familiarity, ensuring that more challenging material was reviewed more frequently.

The real transformation in spaced repetition came with the advent of digital technology. In the late 1980s with the work of Piotr Wozniak, a Polish researcher, developed the SuperMemo spaced repetition algorithms, the first computer program to adjust the timing of reviews based on individual performance.

This software marked a turning point by automating the spacing, making it more efficient and personalized. By the way, Wozniak was an ambitious visionary believing in superhuman opportunities for memory enhancement. Particularly, his genius checklist from the early 00’s is cute and inspiring.  

Today, spaced repetition is a cornerstone of effective learning strategies, facilitated by a range of apps and edtech projects. The modern solutions offer personalized schedules, interactive experiences, and detailed tracking of learning progress, making the method more accessible and efficient than ever before. 

Active Recall Meets Spaced Repetition

Active recall is a study method where you try to remember information without looking at your notes or a textbook. Basically, it’s when you test yourself to see what you remember. 

Spaced repetition technique is built upon the concepts like active recall but it takes things a step further. It doesn’t just tell you to review your notes; it specifically guides you on when to do so, adjusting the spaced intervals.

This timing aspect is crucial. By studying at optimal intervals, you exert minimal effort but achieve maximum retention.

Essentially, a spaced repetition system optimizes the learning process, making it more efficient and effective by combining the proven benefits of active recall with the power of the spacing effect.

The Art of Studying Smarter

The approach you choose for spaced repetition will vary based on what you’re learning. However, here are a few strategies that you might find helpful.

Using Flashcards

A great way to use spaced repetition is through flashcards. As you come across new information, add it to a themed deck. Then, by reviewing these cards daily, you’re not only spreading out your learning but also actively recalling the information. For this, try using the best spaced repetition apps.

Regular Skill Practice

If you’re learning something like a sport, a musical instrument, or even drawing, watching a tutorial once isn’t enough for learning materials. You need to practice regularly until it becomes second nature. Implementing regular drills or basic exercises every day or two is key. Once you’ve got the hang of it, you can reduce the frequency to weekly or bi-weekly sessions to keep the basics sharp.

Creating a Review Schedule

One effective method is to create various lists for review and practice – daily, every other day, every four days, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, etc. When starting learning something new, it should go on your daily to-do list. As you become more proficient, increase time intervals between your study sessions. This isn’t a one-time deal; continuous practice is essential to avoid forgetting what you’ve learned.

No matter what you’re learning, spaced repetition can be a game-changer, making each study session more effective and helping you retain information for the long haul.

Designing Effective Spaced Repetition Routine

So, how do we effectively structure spaced repetition sessions? There are some straightforward tips to enhance your learning with this technique. But here’s the best part: you don’t need to stress over the details, because the last tip makes the rest almost unnecessary. 

  • Start with frequent reviews. After learning something new, review it soon, like the next day. This first step helps to cement the information in your mind.
  • Gradually increase intervals. As you start remembering the information better, begin to space out your review sessions. For instance, after the first review, wait a couple of days for the next one. Then, if you still remember the information, wait a week for the following review, and so on.
  • Adjust based on performance. If you find it hard to recall something during a review, shorten the interval before the next review. If it’s easy to remember, lengthen the time until the next review. This adjustment tailors the learning process to your personal memory capabilities.
  • Use reminders or scheduling tools. To keep track of when to review each piece of information, use tools like calendar reminders, specialized spaced repetition software, or even a simple notebook. This helps ensure you don’t miss review sessions.
  • Keep sessions short and focused. Each review session doesn’t have to be long. It’s more about the frequency and timing of the reviews than the length of each session. Focus on reviewing the material effectively, even if it’s just for a few minutes.
  • Include different types of review. Mix up how you review the material. This could include making cards, rewriting notes, teaching the material to someone else, or doing practice problems.
  • Just go digital. Luckily, there’s no need to manually calculate the right portions of material and intervals between study sessions. Smart spaced repetition apps are available to do just that! They automate the scheduling of reviews based on how well you recall information, making the process efficient and tailored to your learning pace.

Analogue vs. Digital Flashcards

Still, in the world of spaced repetition enthusiasts, the debate between the old-school charm of analogue cards and the sleek efficiency of digital ones goes on somehow. Yes, those paper cards let you physically touch your learning.

They’re like the vinyl records of studying: a bit retro, a bit hipster, and a lot of work. There’s something oddly ceremonial about handwriting your notes, drawing little doodles, and then shuffling through them like a card shark at a Vegas casino. It’s all very tactile and cute, but let’s be real, it’s also like choosing a horse and buggy over a sports car.

At the same time, choosing digital form is like having a personal robot tutor in your pocket. With a few taps, you can access smart spaced repetition algorithms. For example, you will know when exactly you need to review ‘the French Revolution’ or schedule the next micro test of the newly learnt words.

Benefits of Digital Flashcards

No, really, it’s Anki Pro‘s blog, so let’s dive deeper into the WHY behind choosing digital solutions. So, virtual flashcards:

  • can be created quickly and edited easily
  • include a learning algorithm for more efficient studying
  • can be shared with classmates for collaborative learning
  • provide statistics on your learning progress
  • allow for various formats and the attachment of media files
  • have a search function to find specific information
  • come with reminder and motivation features
  • are available in pre-made decks
  • can’t get lost

Sure, you miss out on the smell of ink and the feel of paper, but you gain a backlit screen and the ability to study in a dark room – because who needs sunlight when you have knowledge?

Psychological Factors of Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is more than just a schedule of spacing study intervals; it’s a way to make learning a more pleasant and less stressful experience.

It’s fantastic how spaced repetition eases anxiety! It’s like breaking down a big project into smaller, more manageable tasks. Instead of trying to memorize a mountain of information in one go, you tackle it piece by piece, over time.

Then there’s the confidence boost that clearly comes with spaced repetition. Each time you recall information correctly, it reinforces your belief in your ability to learn and remember. It’s similar to mastering a skill through practice; the more you do it, the better you get, and the more confident you feel. 

And last but not least, spaced repetition contributes to a better study-life balance. It’s like having an efficient personal assistant who schedules your study sessions for you. This organization helps prevent last-minute cramming and the stress that comes with it.

Instead, you get a steady, predictable study routine that leaves room for other aspects of life.

Just pause and think: How cool is that? 

Key Strategies

Summing up all the spaced repetition tactics and techniques, here’s the ultimate list of professional and science-backed recommendations for your studying journey (also called life:) 

Start early

Begin learning new material well before your exam or deadline to give yourself enough time to review and test results.

Use an app

Let professionals manage your time spent on learning and just commit to show up for the review sessions. 

Trust the algorithm

Consistently review your data at the intervals suggested by your app.

Understand what you learn

Without reducing complexity to simple concept, memorizing information won’t be effective.

Build an overall picture

Understand how the facts you’re learning fit together to form a larger, cohesive concept.

Break down information

Divide your study notes into smaller, manageable chunks to recall the information easily.

Keep it simple

The brain best remembers and processes information that’s straightforward and uncomplicated.

Mix up subjects

Study a variety of subjects in each session to keep your brain engaged.

Use images

Create visual associations that make information easier to remember.

Reflect and adjust

Regularly assess your progress and adjust your study plan as needed to ensure effective learning. Change what doesn’t work and do more of what works! 

Insights from Students

But how does it all work in practice, from first repetition to the point of having confidence in one’s memory? Let’s analyze a few user cases taken from Anki Pro reviews to learn from real students’ experiences. 

“I started using spaced repetition 7 or 8 months before my MCAT. (…) I broke down the vast syllabus into daily review sessions. Each day, I focus on a small section, and the app reminded me when to review each topic. By the time the exam rolled around, I felt super prepared and way less stressed.”

Complex and stressful exams like the Medical College Admission Test can be attributed to early and consistent use of spaced repetition. Starting well in advance allowed for a thorough review of the extensive material. Regular, spaced reviews helped transfer information from short-term to long-term memory, making recall during the exam much more efficient.

“I had only a month to prepare for my history final. I created anki cards and shared them with my study group. We all added notes and insights, making the deck super comprehensive. Initially, we were motivated by stress but after all we ended up having fun! (…) And we all got super good grades, better than during the semester”

Collaboration combined with the powerful technique of spaced repetition was key here. Sharing decks allowed for a richer set of study materials, and the social aspect likely increased motivation. The one-month time frame was well-utilized by the structured and consistent approach of spaced repetition, ensuring effective coverage of the material.

“I knew learning Japanese was my dream but it also felt daunting, especially the vocabulary. Recommended by my teacher app with spaced repetition totally helped! I used it as a special tool to memorize new words and phrases, alongside my official course. I think it really helped me not to give up.”

In language learning, regular exposure to new vocabulary is crucial, and that’s where studying with intervals excels. For this student, the app provided timely reviews which is essential for language retention. By preventing the forgetting curve, the student was able to build and retain a substantial vocabulary base, a fundamental aspect of language proficiency.

Start your journey

Now, do you feel inspired for a little action step?

Think of an idea on how spaced repetition could become your go-to learning technique, no matter if you’re a student grappling with academic challenges or an individual committed to personal growth.

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