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Last Updated on December 17, 2020

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, including a great deal about spaced repetition. 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 students and people who are 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 systems, 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 with specific time intervals. 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 you finish 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 the new country.

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

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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 much of 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 learning and 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 in short periods of time, 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 retaining that information and growing as individuals.

Compared to spaced repetition, we see this method 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:

“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.”

Mindhacker

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, 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 require 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 often we are engaging 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 are 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”[2] 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.”

Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve and review cycle. 

    These are memories we can’t recall consciously; however, when exposed, these memories speed up our process of relearning[3]. 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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    Getting back to our question, how often should we be using this technique? According to Ebbinghaus, it’s based more on the quality of our recall rather than the frequency.

    The Best Spaced Repetition Schedule

    Despite what Ebbinghaus stated, his work has been expanded on. His theories still stand, but 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 schedules are SuperMemo SM-2[4] (SM-2 for short) and Mnemosyne[5].

    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 is 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

    Within 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, 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 Material 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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    Published on January 19, 2021

    What Is Learning by Doing And Why Is It Effective?

    What Is Learning by Doing And Why Is It Effective?

    The list of teaching techniques is ever-expanding as there are multiple ways for us to gain knowledge. As a result, there are multiple techniques out there that leverage those particular skills. One such technique I want to share with you is learning by doing.

    This technique has been around for a long time, and it’s a surprisingly effective one thanks to the various perks that come with it. Also called experiential learning, I’ll be sharing with you my knowledge on the subject, what it is deep down, and why it’s such an effective learning tool.

    What Is Learning by Doing?

    Learning by doing is the simple idea that we are capable of learning more about something when we perform the action.

    For example, say you’re looking to play a musical instrument and were wondering how all of them sound and mix. In most other techniques, you’d be playing the instrument all by yourself in a studio. Learning by doing instead gives you a basic understanding of how to play the instrument and puts you up on a stage to play an improvised piece with other musicians.

    Another way to think about this is by taking a more active approach to something as opposed to you passively learning about it. The argument is that active engagement provides deeper learning and that it’s okay if you make mistakes as you learn from those as well. This mentality brought forth a new name for this technique: experiential learning.

    What Are Its Benefits?

    Experimental learning has been around for eons now. It was Aristotle who wrote that “for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

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    Over the years, that way of thinking changed and developed and for a time was lost once computers were integrated into schools. It’s only been in recent years where schools have adopted this technique again. It’s clear why teachers are encouraging this as it offers five big benefits.

    1. It’s More Engaging and More Memorable

    The first benefit is that it’s more engaging and memorable. Since this requires action on your part, you’re not going to be able to weaken your performance. This is big since, traditionally, you’d learn from lectures, books, or articles, and learners could easily read—or not read—the text and walk away with no knowledge at all from it.

    When you are forced into a situation where you have to do what you need to learn, it’s easier to remember those things. Every action provides personalized learning experiences, and it’s where motivation is built. That motivation connects to what is learned and felt. It teaches that learning is relevant and meaningful.

    Beyond that, this experience allows the opportunity for learners to go through the learning cycle that involves extended effort, mistakes, and reflection, followed by refinement of strategies.

    2. It Is More Personal

    Stemming from the reason mentioned above, learning by doing offers a personal experience. Referring back to the cycle of effort, mistakes, reflection, and refinement, this cycle is only possible through personal emotions—the motivation and realization of knowledge of a particular topic tying into your values and ideals.

    This connection is powerful and thus, offers a richer experience than reading from a book or articles such as this one. That personal connection is more important as it encourages exploration and curiosity from learners.

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    If you’ve always wanted to bake a cake or cook a unique dish, you could read up on it or watch a video. Or you could get the ingredients and start going through it all yourself. Even if you make mistakes now, you have a better grasp of what to do for the next time you try it out. You’re also more invested in that since that’s food that you made with the intention of you having it.

    3. It Is Community-Connected

    Learning by doing involves the world at large rather than sitting alone in your room or a library stuck in a book. Since the whole city is your classroom technically, you’re able to leverage all kinds of things. You’re able to gather local assets and partners and connect local issues to larger global themes.

    This leans more into the personal aspect that this technique encourages. You are part of a community, and this form of learning allows you to interact more and make a connection with it—not necessarily with the residents but certainly the environment around it.

    4. It’s More Integrated Into People’s Lives

    This form of learning is deeply integrated into our lives as well. Deep learning occurs best when learners can apply what they’ve learned in a classroom setting to answer questions around them that they care about.

    Even though there is a lot of information out there, people are still always asking “what’s in it for me?” Even when it comes to learning, people will be more interested if they know that what they are learning is vital to their very way of life in some fashion. It’s forgettable if they’re unable to tie knowledge in with personal aspects of their lives. Thus, experiential learning makes the application of knowledge simpler.

    5. It Builds Success Skills

    The final benefit of learning by doing is that it builds up your skills for success. Learning by doing encourages you to step out of your comfort zone, discover something new, and try things out for the first time. You’re bound to make a mistake or two, but this technique doesn’t shame you for it.

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    As a result, learning by doing can build your initiative for new things as well as persistence towards growth and development in a field. This could also lead to team management and collaboration skill growth. These are all vital things in personal growth as we move towards the future.

    How to Get Started

    While all these perks are helpful for you, how are you going to start? Well, there are several different approaches that you can take with this. Here are some of them that come to mind.

    1. Low-Stakes Quizzes

    In classroom settings, one way to introduce this technique is to have many low-stakes quizzes. These quizzes aren’t based on assessing one’s performance. Instead, these quizzes are designed to have learners engage with the content and to generate the learned information themselves.

    Research shows that this method is an effective learning technique.[1] It allows students to improve their understanding and recall and promotes the “transfer” of knowledge to other settings.

    2. Type of Mental Doing

    Another approach is one that Psychologist Rich Mayer put together. According to him, learning is a generative activity.[2] His knowledge and the research done in his lab at Santa Barbara have repeatedly shown that we gain expertise by doing an action, but the action is based on what we already know.

    For example, say you want to learn more about the Soviet dictator Stalin. All you need to do is link what you do know—that Stalin was a dictator—and link it to what you want to learn and retain. Stalin grew up in Georgia, killed millions of people, centralized power in Russia, and assisted in the victory of World War 2. This technique even applies to the most simple of memory tasks as our brain learns and relearns.

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    3. Other Mental Activities

    The final method I’ll share with you is taking the literal approach—getting out there and getting your hands dirty so to speak. But how you go about that is up to you. You could try reading an article and then going out and applying it immediately—like you could with this article. Or maybe you could find further engagement through puzzles or making a game out of the activity that you’re doing.

    For example, if you wanted to learn about animal behavior patterns, you can read about them, go out to watch animals, and see if they perform the specific behaviors that you read about.

    Final Thoughts

    Learning by doing encourages active engagement with available materials and forces you to work harder to remember the material. It’s an effective technique because it helps ingrain knowledge into your memory. After all, you have a deeper personal connection to that knowledge, and you’ll be more motivated to use it in the future.

    With that in mind, I encourage you to take what you’ve learned from reading this article and apply that in the real world. It’s only going to benefit you as you grow.

    Featured photo credit: Van Tay Media via unsplash.com

    Reference

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