Spaced Learning 101

A chart showing how spaced repetition increases % of retention after 1, 3, 6, and 10 days


"The Spaced Effect: How to Improve Learning and Maximize Retention" (post) points out that "[w]e are not taught how to learn in school, we are taught how to pass tests."

  • "The spacing effect is a far more effective way to learn and retain information that works with our brain instead of against it."
  • It helps us "understand cognitive constraints and find intelligent ways to get around them or use them to our advantage."
  • "With properly spaced repetition, you increase the intervals of time between learning attempts. Each learning attempt reinforces the neural connections."

1. The Problem

  • "Going over a topic once teaches very little—sometimes nothing at all, if the teacher is unengaging or the class is too long."

  • "Most teachers expect their students to take care of the memorizing part themselves."

  • [M]any of us develop bad learning habits like cramming to cope with the demands of our classes."

2. The Benefit

"[T]he spacing effect ... is a wildly useful phenomenon":

  • "[W]e 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."
  • "It works for words, numbers, images, and skills."
  • "It works for anyone of any age, from babies to elderly people."
  • "It works for animals, even species as simple as sea slugs."
  • "The effect cuts across disciplines and can be used to learn anything from artistic styles to mathematical equations."

3. How Spaced Learning Seems to Work

a. "Forgetting and learning are, in a counterintuitive twist, linked." 

  • "When we review close to the point of nearly forgetting, our brains reinforce the memory as well as add new details."
  • Application: "[P]ractice papers and teaching other people are the most effective ways for students to revise—they highlight what has been forgotten."

b. "Retrieving memories changes the way they are later encoded." 

  • "[T]he harder something is to remember now, the better we will recall it in the future."
  • "Recall is more important than recognition."
  • Application: "[P]ractice tests are a better way to learn than opening your text and re-reading your highlights."

c. "Our brains assign greater importance to repeated information." 

  • "[I]nformation we encounter on a regular basis ... tend[s] to be more important."
  • "[A]fter accessing ... information hundreds or thousands of time, recall becomes effortless" [e.g. "a PIN, our own telephone number, the directions to work, and names of coworkers"].

d. "Some researchers also believe that semantic priming is a factor."

  • "This refers to the associations we form between words which make them easier to recall."
  • "[R]epetition over time primes us to connect information."
  • Activity: "[T]el[l] a friend to say ‘silk’ ten times, then as[k] them what a cow drinks. They will almost certainly say ‘milk.’ The answer is, of course, water."

e. "Yet another theory is that of deficient processing." 

  • It is possible that "spaced repetition is not in itself especially efficient, but that massed learning is just very inefficient."
  • "[M]assed learning is redundant because we lose interest as we study information and retain less and less over time."
  • "Closely spaced repetition sessions leverage our initial interest before our focus wanes."

4. What Spaced Learning Needs

a. "A schedule for review of information." 

  • "Typical systems involve going over information after an hour, then a day, then every other day, then weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, then every six months, then yearly."
  • "Guess correctly and the information moves to the next level and is reviewed less often."
  • "Guess incorrectly and it moves down a level and is reviewed more often."

b. A means of storing and organizing information. 

  • "Flashcards or spaced repetition software (such as Anki and SuperMemo) are ... common options."
  • "Software ... requir[es] little effort to maintain and [has] an inbuilt repetition schedule."
  • "Anecdotal evidence suggests that writing information out on flashcards contributes to the learning process."

c. A metric for tracking progress. 

  • "Spaced repetition systems work best if they include built-in positive reinforcement."
  • "This is why learning programs like Duolingo and Memrise incorporate a points system, daily goals, leaderboards and so on."
  • "Tracking progress gives us a sense of progression and improvement."

d. A set duration for review sessions. 

  • "If we practice for too long, our attention wanes and we retain decreasing amounts of information."
  • "Likewise, a session needs to be long enough to ensure focused immersion."
  • "A typical recommendation is no more than 30 minutes, with a break before any other review sessions."

5. See "Ten Spaced Learning Strategies" (and tools).

6. Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve (with effect of spaced repetition indicated)

Ebbinghaus' Forgetting Curve with the positive effect of spaced learning indicated


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