• Robb G. Best

The Science of Power Cramming

When you hear the term "spaced learning", you might think it has to do with learning that takes place while you're "spaced out.’ But spaced learning is the less-than-catchy phrase used to describe a scientific breakthrough in memory acquisition.

Learning is fundamentally about sticking something into your memory for retrieval later. During a learning episode, information first moves into your short-term memory and creates a new neural pathway. If that pathway is repeatedly stimulated, it triggers the brain to transfer the information into your long-term memory. The neural pathway acts as both conduit and code for that information upload. Therefore, repetition is key to long-term learning.

This process has been well known in the scientific community for some time. But what if there was a way to speed up learning, to learn an entire history module that would normally take a month, in about an hour? In his Scientific American article "Making Memories Stick", neuroscientist Douglas K. Fields says it’s possible.

In 2005, he and his research team were doing experiments to determine how much time was optimal in terms of the brains ability to absorb new information.

Due to the limitations of attention bandwidth, 15 to 20 minutes was assumed to be the gold standard for human focus and concentration. Much more than that and the brain begins to move into default mode—daydreaming or mind wandering.

Knowing this, Fields team began to experiment with how much time was required between learning sessions. In other words, how long should you wait before engaging in a second learning module? They were surprised to discover the interval of time between learning sessions was even more critical than the actual time devoted to a learning module. So what's the magic number? About 10 minutes.

It appears that 10 minutes is the optimal time the brain needs for information upload and the subsequent transition into long-term memory. Spaced learning is all about leaving the right amount of ‘space’ between learning modules.

If that sounds strange, this might sound even stranger:

In order to facilitate the uptake of information, Fields suggests that you do some sort of physical activity, like playing catch with a ball or modeling with clay during the 10-minute break portion. This kind of rote motor activity allows the part of the brain involved in memory acquisition to tune up and operate without interference from competing thought processes.

In an article titled "Spaced Learning" by Angela Bradley and Alec Patten, they outline an ideal spaced learning setup:

• Teacher input of key facts/information

• 10-minute break

• Student recall of key facts/information

• 10-minute break

• Student application of key facts/information

This sequence of input, recall, and application, followed by breaks of physical activity, leverages how the brain assimilates information and provides a shortcut for rapid learning. This is how a month's worth of lessons can be uploaded into the brain in about an hour.

It should be noted that this kind of learning is exhausting and is not something that can be executed on a daily basis. But when the chips are down and you need to integrate a lot of information quickly, Fields’ team has demonstrated the efficacy of spaced learning.

It brings a whole new meaning to the idea of cramming for finals. If by cramming, you mean throwing a ball around between cram sessions.

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