• Robb G. Best

The Secret to Learning: Space

Pretty much everyone has something they wouldn't mind learning, whether it's a new language, a dance move, or just a way to memorize all their internet passwords. Is there a way we can leverage what we know about how the brain works in order to more efficiently retain information?

In a word, yes. It turns out that if you space out your study sessions, you'll remember more, and it will even take fewer total hours of studying.

Spaced repetition, as it's called, takes advantage of a quirk of the memory called the spacing effect. Basically, we learn more if we allow some time between study sessions so that the brain has room to develop new connections. In "How to Remember More of What You Learn with Spaced Repetition", Thomas Frank likens the phenomenon to building a brick wall: for the most solid construction, you need to allow time for each layer of mortar to dry.

But if you space out your learning, won't you start to forget your lessons? Yes. But if you do it right, that's actually an asset.

In his book How We Learn, science reporter Benedict Carey outlines his "Forget to Learn" theory, in which memories have two strengths: storage strength and retrieval strength.

Storage strength doesn't actually deplete with time. Once the brain considers information important, that information resides somewhere in your head. You can train up your storage strength through repeated recall.

Retrieval strength, on the other hand, is your ability to actually dredge up the information. As you might know if you've ever had someone's name on the tip of your tongue, it can leave you quickly and without warning. Regular maintenance is required to keep it running smoothly. When you forget something you once knew, it's a matter of faulty retrieval strength.

Here's the other half of Carey's theory: the greater the dip in your retrieval strength, the stronger that memory will be when accessed again. It's the reason you might, say, still remember an elementary school spelling bee word you tripped up once upon a time. All you have to do is be sure you access it again, on a reasonable time table.

Carey found that if you want to remember something in a week, you should allow a one to two day gap between your first and second study session. If you'll be tested in a month, that gap expands to a week. If three months, two weeks. If six months, three weeks. And if you want to remember something in a year, you should space out your learning sessions by a month. (That said, 27 days or 32 days is fine; these are all approximations.)

The next time you set out to really incorporate some new information, consider setting up reminders on your phone or other personal device at the appropriate spacings. Your brain will thank you.

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