You’re taking an exam, and your mind goes blank.
No matter how hard you try, you can’t remember much of what you learned the previous night.
Does this happen to you sometimes?
As common as this practice is, cramming a few months’ worth of material into a night or two of learning isn’t the best study habit.
And it isn’t a good way to perform optimal work.
Think of it this way…
Let’s say that you’re going to participate in a marathon or sports competition. You would begin training at least a few weeks or months in advance.
While your brain isn’t a muscle, the same concept still applies. The best way to get good grades is to study over a longer period of time.
And that’s what the spaced repetition technique enables you to do.
What is spaced repetition?
Spaced repetition is a powerful memory technique and system that allows you to remember information better. This system involves reviewing information at increasing intervals. It also helps you to learn through active recall.
By using this study strategy, you’ll retain the information you learn for longer.
Read on and learn how to apply the spaced repetition technique to supercharge your learning!
(To improve your focus and reduce procrastination, make sure to download the free quick action guide below.)
The science behind spaced repetition systems
Research studies have proven the efficacy of the spaced repetition technique. Scientists have found that spacing out your learning over time leads to superior long-term retention. It also enhances memory and problem-solving.
This is due to a phenomenon called the forgetting curve. The forgetting curve represents the process by which we forget information – and this happens quickly!
In fact, students will forget about 75% of what they learned, a day or two after reading a set of notes or attending class. Most of this forgetting happens within the first hour, and you’ll forget even more as time goes on.
But even though the forgetting curve is a natural process, you can disrupt it.
The solution is to learn the topic multiple times over a longer period. The spaced repetition technique enables you to do this.
Spaced repetition learning boils down to these three main aspects:
- Review the material multiple times over an extended period. These reviews are done when your memory of the topic becomes hazy – not when you’ve forgotten everything about the topic. Each time you review the material, your brain will retain that information for longer. This enables you to overcome the forgetting curve.
- Practice active recall. Active recall is the process of retrieving information stored in your brain. During active recall, you’ll recall what you’ve already studied by testing yourself after each review session. This helps you remember the information better. The science shows that students who use the active recall study strategy are more likely to remember the information they learn.
- Progressively increase the interval between each review/active recall session. This gives your brain more time to absorb and consolidate the information learned. Additionally, this allows you to partially forget the information learned. As a result, the active recall process is more demanding, so you’ll reinforce your memory.
Types of spaced repetition systems
There are various ways for you to implement spaced repetition learning to help you study more productively.
Let’s explore the different types of spaced repetition systems that you can use to boost your learning.
If you’re a pen-and-paper learner, these ideas may help to get you started:
- Flashcards: You can create flashcards by writing down a question on one side of the paper and the answer on the flip side. After each review session, you’ll test yourself using these flashcards and check your answer with what’s written on the back of each card.
- Leitner boxes: This method involves sorting your flashcards based on how well you’re able to answer the questions on the front of the flashcards. If you answer the question correctly, the flashcard is sent from the first group to the second group. But if you can’t answer it, the card stays in the first group. Each group of cards is reviewed at different time intervals. The better you can answer the questions, the longer the interval between each review. (For a more in-depth explanation, check out this page.)
- Post-review mind mapping: Researchers have found that mind mapping improves memory and learning. After a review session, take out a piece of paper and draw a diagram showing the relationship between different aspects of the topic. Do this with your books closed, of course.
Many apps and programs can help you study more effectively. Some are specifically designed to boost your learning using the spaced repetition technique.
For instance, Anki is an open-source flashcard app that allows you to build your own decks of digital flashcards. The app utilizes its spaced repetition algorithm to test you using the cards you’ve created.
Quizlet runs on the same concept, and you can share your deck of cards online or with friends.
Another example is the SuperMemo app, which is the first of its kind to use spaced repetition in language learning.
Memrise is yet another language-learning app that harnesses the power of spaced repetition.
Choosing the right system for you
Each system has its own set of pros and cons.
Paper-based flashcards are simple to create since you won’t have to learn to use a new program or app.
But digital systems often use advanced algorithms to optimize the order and interval at which the flashcards are displayed.
Some of these systems, like Anki, are also free to use. Plus, you won’t have to worry about losing your digital flashcards.
Finding the right system for you may take a little experimentation. But it usually comes down to personal preference.
Feel free to switch between different systems to keep your study sessions fun and engaging!
Creating effective flashcards
Creating your own flashcards will serve you better than using pre-made decks.
To make the most of your time and effort, here are some important tips to keep in mind when creating the flashcards:
Understand the concept of “atomic” information
The whole point of flashcards is to present short flashes of information that your brain can easily process and absorb.
Piling too much information into each card defeats the purpose of creating the cards. It also disguises recognizing a piece of information as knowing that piece of information.
Here’s an example…
What’s the answer to this physics question: “What are the three laws of motion?”
You might only remember the first and second laws. After flipping to the back of the card to read the answer, your brain recognizes the third law.
You then move on because you feel you got the question mostly right. But if this question were to appear in the exam, you might not be able to recall all three laws.
To avoid this mistake, you should break down the question into three parts, one for each law. This way, you’ll know exactly what information you remember and what information you don’t.
Apply this concept to all your flashcards.
Break down complex topics into smaller sub-topics. Also, keep the answer for each card short enough that you’d know for sure whether you got the question right or wrong once the card is turned over.
Draft clear and concise prompts
Like we talked about earlier, the best way to phrase a prompt on each flashcard is in the form of a question. Having a question instead of a phrase as a prompt will encourage you to think harder.
It’s also a good practice to ensure that each flashcard only has one question.
If you’re using flashcards to study for an exam, keep your questions closely related to the scope of the exam. You can look for possible questions to put on your cards based on past exams.
Write effective answers
Include a single answer to the question on the back of each flashcard. It’s best to keep the answer to three or four lines or shorter. This will prevent you from overloading the flashcard with too much information.
Split wordy or long answers into two or more flashcards with their own questions, whenever possible.
Concise flashcards help you pinpoint what you know and what you don’t.
Keep your flashcards engaging
One of the best ways to keep your flashcards engaging is to include sketches or diagrams. Here are some ideas you can try:
- Stick figures to represent people
- Flowcharts to describe a process
- Sequence charts or timelines
- Tables to compare two items
- Maps to represent a place
- Simple mindmaps
- Venn diagrams
Of course, these pictures should be directly related to the information on the flashcard.
Don’t be afraid to add color to your cards, either. You can have different colored cards for various topics. And you can use highlighters to draw your attention to specific keywords on your cards.
How to use a spaced repetition system
Let’s explore how to apply the spaced repetition system to your learning process:
Create your flashcards
This is usually the most time-consuming step.
Determine which subjects you’d like to create flashcards for and estimate how much time you plan to devote to each topic.
Take your time to understand what you’re reading in the notes, textbook, etc. But keep in mind that you’re not expected to remember everything perfectly at this point.
Create a study schedule
Using a spaced repetition system requires consistent effort and some planning.
The next step is to plan your study schedule and the intervals between each review session (where you’ll check your knowledge using the flashcards).
The interval length will depend on various factors, such as the following:
- How much knowledge you already have of the topic
- The scope of the topic
- How complex the topic is
Here’s a general guide to spacing out your review sessions after learning the topic for the first time:
- 1st review: 1 day after learning the topic
- 2nd review: 3 days after the 1st review
- 3rd review: 7 days after the 2nd review
- 4th review: 21 days after the 3rd review
- 5th review: 30 days after the 4th review
Of course, you can adjust this schedule depending on your progress. If you’re learning a topic quicker than expected, feel free to space out the reviews more.
Customize your review sessions
Focus on the areas you’re least confident in to make your review sessions more effective.
If you’re using physical flashcards, here’s a fantastic study tip you can use: After testing yourself, manually group the cards into three different categories as follows:
- Group A: I couldn’t answer this at all.
- Group B: I could answer this, but not confidently.
- Group C: I could answer this confidently.
You should review the cards in Group A again, and you should review them one more time in the near future. The cards in Group B don’t need to be reviewed again so soon, and the cards in Group C don’t need to be reviewed until further in the future.
This means that the questions and areas to focus on will change from review session to review session.
As you master the topic, all your cards should eventually “progress” to Group C.
(This is basically the Leitner boxes system that we discussed earlier.)
You can also add more cards and questions to the pile to fortify your knowledge in areas you’re less confident about.
Deal with difficult or frustrating cards
It can be annoying when you’re dealing with cards you just can’t get right. These challenging cards should be reviewed the most often.
You can work on improving your understanding of these challenging areas by:
- Reviewing supplementary materials
- Doing practice questions
- Learning with a friend
- Drawing mindmaps
- Making notes
- Using online resources
Unfortunately, the spaced repetition technique isn’t magic. It will take time for you to get the results you want. So don’t let these roadblocks get you down!
The spaced repetition system is a proven study tool that will help you remember facts and improve your grades.
This method can even come in handy after you’ve graduated and have completed your formal education.
Plus, the spaced repetition technique is versatile, so you can use it to learn a foreign language and pick up a new skill too.
So give it a try today!
(And if you haven’t already done so, make sure to download the free quick action guide below.)