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Published on October 9, 2019

How to Use Spaced Repetition to Remember What You’ve Learned

How to Use Spaced Repetition to Remember What You’ve Learned

While learning is a simple concept on the surface, there is so much that the average person doesn’t know about the topic. For one, did you know that everything that we learned in school is taught to us ineffectively?

While it’s a rather unusual reveal of information, that question will start to make sense when you apply a special learning technique. It’s not something that’s taught in schools, but if it was, we’d have brighter folks. Not to mention people able to retain information better.

This technique is called spaced repetition. Similar to memory palaces, this technique is something that’s been lost to the ages but is an immensely powerful technique.

It is one of the many keys to retaining information, but also to help with learning as we grow older. Today, I’ll be taking a closer look at this technique, showing how it works, and how you too can benefit from this technique.

What Is Spaced Repetition?

Before learning about spaced repetition, it’s key to understand how our brains work.

In order for us to retain any information in our brain, we have to refresh it periodically. For example, let’s say you hear that “Ottawa is the capital of Canada.” If you’re not using that information at all, you will likely forget about it after finishing reading this article or sometime later.

However, if you continue to “learn” that Ottawa is the capital of Canada through text or you explaining this, you’ll better retain this information.

The point is:

The more often you encounter certain bits of info, the less often you’ll need to refresh your memory of it.

What makes our brains so interesting though is that, even long-held pieces of information can be forgotten. Even the most familiar pieces of info can be forgotten if we don’t run into it enough. For example, people moving to another country can forget or have difficulty speaking their own native language if they’re not exposed to enough of it in this new country.

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With that understanding, spaced repetition is based entirely on these principals. It’s the idea of reviewing information at gradually increasing intervals.

It’s also worth noting spaced repetition has also been called other things as well. Examples are spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsals, graduated intervals, repetition spacing, spaced/expanded retrieval, or repetition scheduling.

Does Spaced Repetition Really Work?

Of course, this technique is effective and well worth your time. To argue this, let’s go back to what I mentioned earlier about school. It’s a fact that learning in school is ineffective compared to this technique.

Aside from the fact most of us probably don’t remember anything we learned in high school at this point, even younger generations will have a tougher time retaining that knowledge.

There are two key factors to not only learning but retaining information:

  1. How much information we retain
  2. The amount of effort spent to retain that level of information

Going back to school learning, we have to retain a lot of information revolving around the various topics we were taught. So the amount of info is considerable.

But it starts to fall short when you consider the second factor. After all, we only have to retain that information for both the test and the exams we take at the end.

Because of this, it’s fair to say that school teaches us to learn in order to pass a test. We’re not learning for the sake of learning and growing ourselves.

Compared to spaced repetition, we see this method shining and working wonders for us. While the information could be small or vast, the effects can be transformative.

In Gabriel Wyner’s book Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It, spaced repetition is the go-to method:

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Spaced repetition…[is] extraordinarily efficient. In a four-month period, practising for 30 minutes a day, you can expect to learn and retain 3600 flashcards with 90 to 95 percent accuracy. These flashcards can teach you an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation. And they can do it without becoming tedious because they’re always challenging enough to remain interesting and fun.

In Mindhacker, a book written by Ron and Marty Hale-Evans expands on this point:

Our memory is simultaneously magnificent and pathetic. It is capable of incredible feats, yet it never works quite like we wish it would. Ideally, we would be able to remember everything instantly, but we are not computers. We hack our memory with tools like memory palaces, but such techniques required effort and dedication. Most of us give up, and outsource our memory to smartphones, cloud enabled computers, or plain old pen and paper. There is a compromise…a learning technique called spaced repetition which efficiently organizes information or memorization and retention can be used to achieve near perfect recall.

How Often Should You Use Spaced Repetition?

By this point, we know fully that frequency matters a lot. But it’s worth looking at the degree and how frequent we are being with information. For one, you might be thinking that cramming might be a good idea, but that’s not an effective method either.

According to German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, cramming facts vanish.[1] Instead, Ebbinghaus encourages us to focus on some other factors before delving into frequency. Those factors being the intensity of our emotions, and the intensity of our attention.

He writes:

Very great is the dependence of retention and reproduction upon the intensity of the attention and interest which were attached to the mental states the first time they were present. The burnt child shuns the fire, and the dog which has been beaten runs from the whip, after a single vivid experience. People in whom we are interested we may see daily and yet not be able to recall the colour of their hair or of their eyes…Our information comes almost exclusively from the observation of extreme and especially striking cases.

Why did he focus on that rather than a specific time? Well, because Ebbinghaus uncovered more than that fact. After all, he was the pioneer of this work. How he uncovered all of this was through self-experimentation.

Not only did his experiments uncover those factors I mentioned above, but also something called “the forgetting curve”. From Ebbinghaus’s research, he concluded that a certain quantity of information is stored in our subconscious minds. He referred to those memories as “savings.”

These are memories we can’t recall consciously, however, when exposed, these memories speed up our process of relearning. Think of a song that you haven’t heard in a decade or several years. You probably can’t recall the words right now, but if you heard the melody, the lyrics would come pouring in.

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So getting back to our question, how often should we be using this technique? According to Ebbinghaus, it’s more on the quality of our recall rather than the frequency.

The Best Spaced Repetition Schedule

That being said, despite what Ebbinghaus stated, his work has been expanded on. For sure, his theories still stand, however, his work has inspired various spaced repetition schedules.

Unlike Ebbinghaus, these give specific times for when we should be repeating these processes, countering the forgetting curve Ebbinghaus created.

Out of the many schedules, the most popular and go to schedules are SuperMemo SM-2 (SM-2 for short) and Mnemosyne.

SM-2 is the original and the default spaced repetition schedule out there and for good reason. It was published by P.A. Wozniak in 1990 as a thesis. It was an algorithm that was born through trial and error that took several years to bring it to where it’s at today.

According to the publisher, the author memorized 10,255 items and then based on the algorithm repeated those items every day. The author spent 41 minutes each day memorizing and reciting those items. After the experiment was over, the overall retention was 92%.

Since then, many other schedules have come up but none could hit those expectations, making SM-2 the go-to. Mnemosyne is another popular one as it’s incredibly similar to SM-2. Out of them all, it’s the closest schedule to achieving the same results.

How to Use Spaced Repetition for Effective Learning

Having a schedule is one thing, but then it’s a matter of using it and retaining information. Also, if a schedule is too complicated for you, this 4-step method is easy to get into and should yield similar results.

1. Review Your Notes

1Within 20-24 hours of the initial intake of information, make sure the information is written down in notes and that you have reviewed them. During the reviewing session, you want to read them, but then look away and try to recall the most important points.

Remember, there is a difference between rereading and recalling so be certain you look away and pull from your memories.

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2. Recall the Information for the First Time

After a day of your first review, try to recall the information without using any of your notes as much. Try recalling when you’re taking a walk or sitting down and relaxing.

You can also increase your efficiency by creating flashcards of the main ideas and quizzing yourself on the concepts.

3. Recall the Materials Again

After that, recall the material every 24-36 hours over the course of several days. They don’t have to be lengthy recalls. Try a recall session when you’re standing in an elevator or waiting in line.

 You are still free to look at your notes or flashcards, but try recalling while working with those notes.

The idea with this step is to ask yourself questions and to quiz yourself in order to retain and recall this information.

4. Study It All Over Again

After several days have passed, take out your material and study it all over again. If this information is for a test, make sure that this is done within a week before the test. This allows your brain to reprocess concepts.

Bottom Line

Even without a schedule, spaced repetition feels natural and is a better way to learn than traditional methods. It expands on memory retention strategies like memory palaces too.

Not only that, but this technique can apply to all manner of things in life. Thanks to using flashcards and other methods, you can learn new languages, properly prepare for tests, and more.

More About Effective Learning

Featured photo credit: Joel Muniz via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Leon Ho

Founder & CEO of Lifehack

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Last Updated on January 21, 2020

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

5 Proven Memorization Techniques to Make the Most of Your Memory

Do you forget stuff every now and then? Are you trying to enhance your memory but not sure how?

All you need is the right memorization techniques to make the most of your memory.

The human brain is fascinating. More specifically, the vast interconnections within our mind. Mendel Kaelen compares the human brain to a hill covered in snow,

“Think of the brain as a hill covered in snow, and thoughts as sleds gliding down that hill. As one sled after another goes down the hill a small number of main trails will appear in the snow. And every time a new sled goes down, it will be drawn into preexisting trails, almost like a magnet. In time it becomes more and more difficulty to glide down the hill on any other path or in a different direction.”

The intent of Kaelen’s discussion is to think of new ways to temporarily flatten the snow. Kaelen remarked,

“The deeply worn trails disappear, and suddenly the sled can go in other directions, exploring new landscapes and, literally, creating new pathways.”

The idea here is to temporarily rewire your brain, or as Michael Pollan remarked in How to Change Your Mind,

“The power to shake the snow globe, disrupting unhealthy patterns of thought and creating a space of flexibility-entropy-in which more salubrious patterns and narratives have an opportunity to coalesce as the snow slowly settles.”

So, how can we rewire our brain allowing deeply worn connections to disappear and new connections to form? The answer is quite simple. We must change the way we store information in our mind.

    Let’s examine 5 specific memorization techniques that will change the way you think and remember information.

    1. Build a Memory Palace

      What is it?

      The method of loci[1] (aka memory palace) is a method of memory enhancement using visualizations with the use of spatial memory. It uses familiar information about your environment to quickly recall information. It is a method that was discussed by Cicero in an ancient dialogue called De Oratore.

      How to use it?

      Ron White discusses in How to Memorize Fast and Easily: Build a Memory Palace, that it’s essentially a room or building that you have memorized and you use locations in the room to store data. Ron informs us,

      “You memorize locations in a room and then you later go back to those locations to retrieve the data that you want to remember.”

      Example

      An easy 5-step example, in the form of a Wiki, can be found at Artofmemory.com. Let’s examine the the steps:

      • Step 1. Choose a place that you know well. For example, your house or office.
      • Step 2. Plan the route and pick specific locations in your route. For example, your front door, bathroom kitchen, etc.
      • Step 3. Decide what you want to memorize. For example, geography, list of items, answers for a test, etc.
      • Step 4. Place one or two items, with a mental image, and place them in your memory palace. Exaggerate your images. For example, use nudity or crazy images forcing it to stick in your mind.
      • Step 5. Make the image into a mnemonic.

      You can learn more about this technique here: How to Build a Memory Palace to Remember More of Everything

      2. Mnemonic

        What is it?

        A mnemonic is a memory device that aids in retention and/or retrieval of information. Mnemonic systems are techniques consciously used to improve memory by helping us use information already stored in long-term memory to make memorization easier.[2]

        How to use it?

        Mnemonics make use of retrieval cues to encode information in our brain allowing for efficient storage and retrieval of the information. The trick is to learn how to easily create mnemonics. If you find that you struggle with creating your own, try the following website: Mnemonic Generator.

        Example

        I recently came across a video using mnemonics to memorize countries. Memorizing Countries using Mnemonics is a video created as an introduction to a class for using memory techniques to learn the names of countries on maps.

        I actively search for videos that provide enormous educational value, yet receive very little exposure. At the time of this writing, this video has received less than 4k views. Let’s examine the video.

        Goal: Create a mnemonic to memorize the countries in the Caribbean (just the countries you need to learn).

        Step 1. Looking at a map – write out each country (for which five were chosen).

        Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico.

        Step 2. Write the first letter of each country vertically.

        C

        J

        H

        D

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        P

        Step 3. Create a sentence or phrase.

        Cubs

        Just

        Hate

        Doing

        Push-ups

        Cubs just hate doing push-ups. (Cuba Jamaica Haiti Dominican Republic Puerto Rico)

        3. Mnemonic Peg System

          What is it?

          According to Artofmemory.com, a mnemonic peg system is a technique for memorizing lists and it works by memorizing a list of words that are easy to associate with the numbers they represent.[3] These objects are the pegs of the system.

          How to use it?

          The trick is to create a Number Rhyme System with each number having a rhyming mnemonic keyword.

          Example

          Let’s look at an example of a Number Rhyme System:[4]

          0 = hero

          1 = gun

          2 = shoe

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          3 = tree

          4 = door

          5 = hive

          6 = sticks

          7 = heaven

          8 = gate

          9 = line

          Another technique like the Peg system is the Number Shape System.[5] Here you are assigning mnemonic images based on the shape of the number. Watch the following video for an example of this system: Number Shape System for Memorizing Numbers.

          4. Chunking

            What is it?

            Chunking is a way to remember large bits of information by chunking them into smaller pieces of information. We are more likely to then remember the information when we put the small pieces back together to see the entire picture.

            How to use it?

            In the video Chunking – A Learning Technique, we can see that there are several ways to chunk information.

            Example

            Let’s examine a simple example using a nine-digit number.

            Step 1. What is the number you are trying to remember?

            081127882

            Step 2. Cut the number into smaller pieces through chunking.

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            081 – 127 – 882

            Let’s look at one more example from the same video.

            “Piano teachers will first demonstrate an entire song to students. They will then ask their students to practice one measure at a time. Once the part has been learned and the neural connections in the brain have been built, then students go on to the next measure. After all chunks have been played separately, they are combined until the entire piece is connected.”

            5. Transfer of Learning

              What is it?

              Transfer of learning is a way to learn something in one area and apply it in another. Authors of Thinking at Every Desk, Derek and Laura Cabrera inform us about the transfer of learning,

              “If a student has a high transfer skills, she can learn one thing and then teach herself 10, 50, or 100 additional things.”

              How to use it?

              There are two specific ways to use it:

              1. Vertical Transfer (aka Far Transfer). Think of learning something in grade school and applying it another grade or later in life.
              2. Horizontal Transfer (aka Near Transfer). Think of learning a concept in history and applying it in math.

              Example

              I provide a detailed step-by-step example for this technique in this article:

              Learn How to Learn: How to Understand and Connect Difficult Ideas Easily

              The Bottom Line

              The key to using the techniques discussed here is to remember that we must actively think about information.

              We cannot simply drill information into our brain through rote memorization. We must change the way we think about memorization. We must find a way to “shake the snow-globe” in our mind or flatten the snow so that we can create new learning paths.

              Or as Derek and Laura Cabrera point out, we must insert “Thinking” into the equation,

              “Information X Thinking = Knowledge”

              More About Enhancing Memories

              Featured photo credit: Nong Vang via unsplash.com

              Reference

              [1] Remember Everything: Memory Palaces and the Method of Loci
              [2] The Learning Center Exchange: 9 Types of Mnemonics for Better Memory
              [3] Art of Memory: Mnemonic Peg System
              [4] Art of Memory: Number Rhyme System
              [5] Art of Memory: Number Shape System

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