Memorization and Spaced Repetition

Now, not all learning is memorization, but some subjects require this- like vocabulary for language acquisition or dates for history classes. It can be tempting to just make a giant stack of flashcards a couple days before your exam and shuffle through them continuously. This may work in the short term, getting you an alright test grade, but come Monday when the teacher expects those words to be part of your vocabulary and gives you even more words to learn you’ll have already forgotten half of them! This isn’t a winning strategy for the long term.

So what is the best way to memorize? Spaced repetition. Here’s the science:

We forget information on a curve (The creator of this system called it “memory decay,” which is frankly too cool a phrase). The curve drops steeply at the beginning before petering out to a slow loss. Everytime we relearn or recall information, we soften that curve, making it so that we take longer to forget the information the next time. Do this enough times and you’ll have flattened your forgetting curve to basically 0, learning the information instead of simply spitting it out for a test. 

This is called the spacing effect, describing how our brains learn more effectively through spaced out repetition rather than cramming. Without spaced repetition, new learning will drive out old learning, your brain naturally focusing on whatever was most recent. With spacing, our brain recognizes “Oh hey! I needed that before. Better hold on to it more this time.” We build new connections in our brain rather than simply storing the information for a short time.

Thankfully, enthusiastic psychologists have discovered for us the optimal days for spaced repetition. Next time you’re memorizing large chunks of information, try following this system for the best results:

  • First repetition after 1 day

  • Second repetition after 7 days

  • Third repetition after 16 days

  • Fourth repetition after 35 days

It only takes a little over a month and only four memorization sessions at that! (of course results can vary with difficulty of terms to be memorized and how much other stuff you’re trying to learn). With this method, you can effectively learn rather than cram and trash information that you’ll want the rest of the school year.

Happy studying!

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