The Spacing Effect: How to Improve Learning and Maximise Retention
‘Learning how to learn’ is arguably the most important skill that any of us can master. Furthermore, once you acquire/learn new things, you want to be able to retain them. Unfortunately, our schools are not focused on teaching us these skills. “During the school years, most of us got used to spending hours at a time memorizing facts, equations, the names of the elements, French verbs, dates of key historical events. We found ourselves frantically cramming the night before a test. We probably read through our notes over and over, a gallon of coffee in hand, in the hope that the information would somehow lodge in our brains. Once the test was over, we doubtless forgot everything straight away.”
This method of rote learning is tedious and ineffective.” This is where the spacing effect comes in. It’s a wildly useful phenomenon: we are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple, spread-out sessions. We can leverage this effect by using spaced repetition to slowly learn almost anything.”
So what is spaced repetition? Gabriel Wyner gives an example in his book ‘Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It’: “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.”
The man who discovered this is Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist. He figured out how the mind forgets (there is a lovely chart in the article showing this). That in turn led him towards a method to optimise retention. “There is a way to slow down the process of forgetting. We need only to recall or revisit the information after we originally come across it. Going over the information later, at intervals, helps us remember a greater percentage of the material. Persistence will allow us to recall with 100% accuracy all that we want to remember….Under normal conditions, frequent repetitions aid memory. We know this intuitively. Just try to memorize this article on a single repetition. However much attention, focus, or individual ability you have, it won’t work.
Memory mastery comes from repeated exposure to the material. Ebbinghaus observes, “Left to itself every mental content gradually loses its capacity for being revived, or at least suffers loss in this regard under the influence of time.” Cramming is not an effective memorization strategy. Lacking the robustness developed in later sessions, crammed facts soon vanish. Even something as important and frequently used as language can decay if not put into use.”
Astonishingly, no psychologist has as yet figured out why spaced repetition works so well. Hence the article presents some of theories which have been laid out to explain the efficacy of this technique. We find it even more surprising that schools don’t use this technique more frequently.