What Is Spaced Repetition?

We’re sure you’re familiar with the technique of repetition in memory training, because it’s one of the key tricks to remembering things for both short-term and long-term recall. For example, if you’ve looked up a telephone number but there will be a few minutes before you can pick up your phone and dial, repeating the number several times out loud will help you keep that number in mind correctly until you get a chance to make the call. To put something into your memory for good, whether that’s in studying for a test coming up in a week or committing to memory the theory and techniques required to do the tasks in your new job, you’ll also need to repeat and review the information. Since there’s a proven decrease in your ability to remember things without active memorization efforts – we’ve talked about the Ebbinghaus curve before – knowing how and when to use repetition is an important skill.

The theory behind spaced repetition is based on how and when we learn, and at what point in the learning process information is stored in memory. Intensive repetition over a short period of time will help you learn something quickly, but you might also forget it just as quickly. In order to keep that information in your memory, you’ll need to review and repeat it over a longer time period. How long that time period is depends on how hard it is for you to memorize the information. This means that when you practice spaced repetition you need to keep two things in mind: when you practice, and what you practice.

As Ebbinghaus noted, we tend to forget things fairly quickly unless we make an effort to remember them. This mental effort cues our brain to create space in short-term memory for the information. Intensive repetition in the first few minutes and up to half an hour will lock the data in your short-term memory. This holds true for anything you’re trying to remember, whether it’s as easy as a person’s name or as hard as a mathematical formula. In other words, the first step in spaced repetition is to have very little space between your repetitions, at first.

Once the information is in short-term memory, you need to move it to long-term memory, and you need to make the mental links that will let you easily recall the information. To do this, you need to continually test yourself on the information. Look for software that allows you to schedule randomly-timed pop-up windows with mini-quiz questions on the topic you’re studying to jog your memory. If you’re not anticipating the question, your brain will be “shocked” into awareness by the unexpected challenge, and that mental energy will help connect the question and the answer. You can also use flash cards to review information regularly, setting aside each flash card once you’ve learned it thoroughly. Don’t throw the cards away, though! A month or even a year later, go through those cards again to make absolutely sure you’ve got that information firmly in your memory banks.