Spaced Learning

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Have you ever looked at your notes from last year, last month, or last week and asked yourself, “What is this?!?” If you’ve wondered how you could have completely forgotten something you were sure you had learned, you’re not alone. While there are many reasons for that phenomenon, one explanation lies in the very nature of school itself.

As you may have noticed, school can be a bit of a conveyor belt that only goes forward — and in so doing, goes too fast as well. Moreover, the incentive system of school rewards short-term learning and performance, frequently at the expense of long-term learning. In short, it’s a system that, by design, risks wasting a lot of your time.

You might be wondering what exactly I mean.

Often, learning can described as a “station-to-station” trip. If you are like most students, your teacher teaches you something, or you read a book or watch a video on a new concept. Then, you might have homework and then a quiz, followed by some review, and soon thereafter a test. So, you might have to take a test on Chapter 7 (Nailed it!) and then turn to Chapter 8. But when you start Chapter 8, you’re apt to (figuratively, we hope!) toss Chapter 7 over your shoulder. Then, repeat that with Chapters 8, 9, 10 …

This process explains in part why students forget more than 90% of what they learn. Sure, you may have a string of As, which may be your goal, but that’s not the same thing as learning that sticks with you.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be either/or. There are science-backed, time-efficient methods that “Make Things Stick.” They include peer-to-peer instruction, frequent testing (Ouch! But it’s true), more sleep, and mixing things up.

But the one I’d like to discuss briefly today is spaced learning. Simply put, this is the opposite of cramming. Now, yes, cramming does work for the quiz in an hour or the test coming up tomorrow, which is why you do it. But what helps short-term will not help long-term.

In particular, subjects like math and foreign languages are cumulative. We use today what we’ve learned over years. As a student in 9th grade, what you learn today can very much matter to your work next year and the next and can certainly matter on tests like the ACT and SAT that include content from several years of school. So, we’d love to see you do well on tomorrow’s test and have more of that information stay with you so you can that access it next week, next month, or next year when you need it the most.

The good news is you are already a spaced learner. If you have played a video game over a period of time, spent a summer practicing tennis, or learned lines for a school play, you already have some familiarity with this process. 

Memories are neural pathways — brain cells that are joined in a sequence. We form them every day, all day long. At night, our brains prune away most of them. But when we revisit a memory or experience the same thing again, the neural pathway is activated again, strengthening it. “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” To truly strengthen the pathway — that is, to make the memory “stick”— we benefit from time between periods of learning.

So, how do we do this? In a perfect world, after learning something, we review it an hour later, a day later, and a month later. Intentionally. Sound impractical? Well, consider these ideas:

  • For classes like math and science that are sequential, take a few minutes to preview. Read the summaries or overview of the next lesson Tuesday night before Wednesday’s class.
  • Switch between studying different topics. Rather than an hour-plus of math and then Spanish, study a half-hour of math, half-hour of Spanish, second half-hour of math, and second half-hour of Spanish.
  • Before studying for a test on Chapter 8, spend some time reviewing your notes or test for Chapter 7. It doesn’t have to take lots of time to fire up those neural pathways making them stick long-term.
  • Even taking time during downtime to reflect on the work you did or what your teacher told you counts. For, just as our muscles get stronger recovering from exercise, brains encode learning after studying.

Yes, you will likely still sometimes use cramming. But to get the long-term benefits of your work and sustained mastery of what you’ve learned, try spaced learning as a tool.

Ned Johnson

President & Tutor-Geek

Ned Johnson is the president and founder of PrepMatters. A professional tutor-geek since 1993, Mr. Johnson has devoted in excess of 35,000 hours in one-on-one test prep for nearly the entire alphabet of tests. His experience includes work with all ages and abilities in preparation for SSAT and ISEE to ACT and SAT to GMAT, GRE and LSAT.

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