How To: Learn Better by Learning Less

Tomorrow is a big day. You are writing your final exam. This one is a big one. Make or break. You haven’t been paying much attention during the semester, but now, a few days before your exam, cramming is in full force. Red Bull, coffee and late nights. After the test, you thought you did well, that’s good. However, two months later, you can’t remember a thing. Your memory has failed you.

However, you could have performed better by doing less and still remember more after your test. No, this is not an infomercial for a new wonder plant discovered in the Amazon, but rather the most robust and well documented cognitive phenomenon with over 100 years of research, known as the spacing effect.

What is the Spacing Effect?

The spacing effect is a memory phenomenon where by spacing information further apart, requires less effort to remember, than information closer together. The opposite of the spacing effect would be massed, or otherwise known in studying terms as cramming. It all started with Ebbinghaus back in 1885 when he noticed that better recall was observed when learning syllables spaced three days apart with fewer repetitions than learning the same syllables after each other consecutively on the same day.

The Spacing Effect can achieved by adding more time between repetitions or adding other information in between the repetitions. So a spacing repetition schedule can look like this:

Item A; (time); Item A; (time); Item A; (time); Item A etc

or like this:

Item A; Item B; Item C; Item A; Item D: Item B: Item A etc

All that needs to occur is space! Spacing of higher magnitudes are better than spacing of lower magnitudes. Thus, spacing of 4 days between each interval will prove better recall than spacing of 2 days. It is found that the higher the interval the less amount of repetition is needed to achieve the same recall. Bahrick did a 9 year study of Spanish-English word pairs where 13 repetitions spaced 56 days apart was comparable to 26 repetitions 14 days apart.

But how far can the spacing effect really go? This is where the forgetting curve comes in.

More research has been derived from spacing effect research, pushing the boundaries of forgetting. Thus, information is timed to appear just when you are about to forget it. Thus, maximizing the repetition intervals. Popular software use this method to space your information further and further apart, because it gets harder and harder to forget. Becoming even more efficient!

Here’s an excellent visualization showcasing memory comparisons between traditional and SRS review methods. A “4″ means it’s fresh in the memory and remembered, a “1″ is close to forgetting:

How can I utilize the Spacing Effect?

Now, I hear you ask, where is my magic? There are various software available that implements the spacing effect in a flashcard system. Anki and Mnemosyne are the favourites. I have used both and recommend them. They both however use an algorithm based on Supermemo, which was built out of research done in the economics of learning by Peter Wozniak.

These programs are valuable for many applications. In my case, they are excellent for reviewing Chinese vocabulary. If you are aiming for a final exam, start by putting information in a flashcard format as soon as you learn it. By the time you reach the exam, you’ll have put in less time and have ability to remember it better.

Another question, I hear you ask? Why aren’t we seeing widespread application of the spacing effect in classrooms and other learning institutions? There are various reasons, but main reason that has been put forth is that people don’t have the patience in learning using the spacing effect. The spacing effect’s return on learning reward is in the long-run, thus the delay is often not sufficient and motivating enough for many pupils. Cramming is still seen as a superior method for studying, and in the short term it is. Curriculum design would also have to be rethought, as a proper spacing effect implementation would have to return to the material to review it, which could add some time constraints as well as logistical issues. Furthermore, people are just not aware of the benefits of spaced repetition, thus adoption could be slow and not trusted.

My research involves adapting Spaced Repetition Systems (also known as SRS) to the unique Chinese script, as most implementations do not cater for the unique properties of its orthography. It specifically focuses on vocabulary acquisition of Chinese characters and words.

I hope you have learned something new. Please, don’t forget it.

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  1. 1
    Simon M. on Tuesday 31 January, 12:35 PM #

    Fascinating. I’ve read about how the brain learns and come across the concept of how cramming is only useful in the short term, but its awesome to read more about it and learn of the Spacing Effect.

    One way to implement it, might be to use a continuous assessment system with multiple tests, and then have each test be partially new work, and partially old work. Hopefully forcing you to relearn some of it. Of course, as you say, logistics always get in the way, so its never easy to change things.

  2. 2
    gwern on Friday 03 February, 20:22 PM #

    That’s a nice video, but it’s been updated:

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