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Last Updated on February 3, 2021

How to Use Spaced Repetition to Remember What You Learn

How to Use Spaced Repetition to Remember What You Learn

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 important 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 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.

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

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

, 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, facts that you get through cramming 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.”

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Ebbinghaus' forgetting curve and spaced repetition

    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.

    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.

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    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 for short term retention. 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.

    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 study sessions. 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 in your long-term memory.

    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 engage effectively in language learning, properly prepare for tests, and more.

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    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 July 21, 2021

    How to Stop Information Overload and Get More Done

    How to Stop Information Overload and Get More Done

    Information overload is a creature that has been growing on the Internet’s back since its beginnings. The bigger the Internet gets, the more information there is. The more quality information we see, the more we want to consume it. The more we want to consume it, the more overloaded we feel.

    This has to stop somewhere. And it can.

    As the year comes to a close, there’s no time like the present to make the overloading stop.

    But before I explain exactly what I mean, let’s discuss information overload in general.

    How Serious Is Information Overload?

    The sole fact that there’s more and more information published online every single day is not the actual problem. Only the quality information becomes the problem.

    This sounds kind of strange…but bear with me.

    When we see some half-baked blog posts we don’t even consider reading, we just skip to the next thing. But when we see something truly interesting — maybe even epic — we want to consume it.

    We even feel like we have to consume it. And that’s the real problem.

    No matter what topic we’re interested in, there are always hundreds of quality blogs publishing entries every single day (or every other day). Not to mention all the forums, message boards, social news sites, and so on.

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    The amount of epic content on the Internet these days is so big that it’s virtually impossible for us to digest it all. But we try anyway.

    That’s when we feel overloaded. If you’re not careful, one day you’ll find yourself reading the 15th blog post in a row on some nice WordPress tweaking techniques because you feel that for some reason, “you need to know this.”

    Information overload is a plague. There’s no vaccine, there’s no cure. The only thing you have is self-control.

    Luckily, you’re not on your own. There are some tips you can follow to protect yourself from information overload and, ultimately, fight it.

    But first, admit that information overload is really bad for you.

    Why Information Overload Is Bad for You

    Information overload stops you from taking action. That’s the biggest problem here.

    When you try to consume more and more information every day, you start to notice that even though you’ve been reading tons of articles, watching tons of videos and listening to tons of podcasts, the stream of incoming information seems to be infinite.

    Therefore, you convince yourself that you need to be on a constant lookout for new information if you want to be able to accomplish anything in your life, work and/or passion. The final result is that you are consuming way too much information, and taking way too little action because you don’t have enough time for it.

    The belief that you need to be on this constant lookout for information is just not true.

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    You don’t need every piece of advice possible to live your life, do your work or enjoy your passion.

    How to Stop Information Overload (And Start to Achieve More)

    So how to recognize the portion of information that you really need? Start with setting goals.

    1. Set Your Goals

    If you don’t have your goals put in place, you’ll be just running around grabbing every possible advice and thinking that it’s “just what you’ve been looking for.”

    Setting goals is a much more profound task than just a way to get rid of information overload. Now by “goals” I don’t mean things like “get rich, have kids, and live a good life”. I mean something much more within your immediate grasp. Something that can be achieved in the near future — like within a month (or a year) at most.

    Basically, something that you want to attract to your life, and you already have some plan on how you’re going to make it happen. So no hopes and dreams, just actionable, precise goals.

    Then once you have your goals, they become a set of strategies and tactics you need to act upon.

    2. Know What to Skip When Facing New Information

    Once you have your goals, plans, strategies and tasks, you can use them to decide what information is really crucial.

    First of all, if the information you’re about to read has nothing to do with your current goals and plans, then skip it. You don’t need it.

    If it does, then ask yourself these questions:

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    • Will you be able to put this information into action immediately?
    • Does it have the potential to maybe alter your nearest actions/tasks?
    • Is it so incredible that you absolutely need to take action on it right away?

    If the information is not actionable in a day or two, then skip it.

    (You’ll forget about it anyway.) And that’s basically it.

    Digest only what can be used immediately. If you have a task that you need to do, consume only the information necessary for getting this one task done, nothing more.

    You need to be focused in order to have clear judgment, and be able to decide whether some piece of information is mandatory or redundant.

    Self-control comes handy too. It’s quite easy to convince yourself that you really need something just because of poor self-control. Try to fight this temptation, and be as ruthless about it as possible – if the information is not matching your goals and plans, and you can’t take action on it in the near future, then SKIP IT.

    3. Be Aware of the Minimal Effective Dose

    There’s a thing called the MED – Minimal Effective Dose. I was first introduced to this idea by Tim Ferriss. In his book The 4-Hour BodyTim illustrates the minimal effective dose by talking about medical drugs.

    Everybody knows that every pill has a MED, and after that specific dose, no other positive effects occur, only some negative side effects if you overdose big.

    Consuming information is somewhat similar. You need just a precise amount of it to help you to achieve your goals and put your plans into life.

    Everything more than that amount won’t improve your results any further. And if you try to consume too much of it, it will eventually stop you from taking any action altogether.

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    4. Don’t Procrastinate by Consuming More Information

    Probably one of the most common causes of consuming ridiculous amounts of information is the need to procrastinate. By reading yet another article, we often feel that we are indeed working, and that we’re doing something good – we’re learning, which in result will make us a more complete and educated person.

    This is just self-deception. The truth is we’re simply procrastinating. We don’t feel like doing what really needs to be done – the important stuff – so instead we find something else, and convince ourselves that “that thing” is equally important. Which is just not true.

    Don’t consume information just for the sake of it. It gets you nowhere.

    The focus of this article is not on how to stop procrastinating, but if you’re having such issue, I recommend you read this: Procrastination – A Step-By-Step Guide to Stop Procrastinating

    Summing It Up

    As you can see, information overload can be a real problem and it can have a sever impact on your productivity and overall performance.

    I know I have had my share of problems with it (and probably still have from time to time). But creating this simple set of rules helps me to fight it, and to keep my lizard brain from taking over.

    I hope it helps you too, especially as we head into a new year with a new chance at setting ourselves up for success.

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    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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