Updated: Aug 10, 2021
To give you a little insight into my thought process in coming up with the content of these 7-day lessons, I contemplated whether or not I should include the topic of memory retention and the skills for memorising information. The reasoning behind it was that I didn’t want it to become a “Do THIS and you’ll never forget ANYTHING” kind of article. Still, I wanted to make sure that the project covered some of the most common learning goals for many students.
In the deepest depths of your belief, you know that cramming is not the most effective way to learn something. Yet you, me, and practically everyone is guilty of doing it. But have you ever wondered why cramming is considered to be the ‘worst way to study’ by many people? Sure, it works to some degree (as in, you might score decently on the test you were preparing for) but that’s pretty much it. It may work short term, since you’re practically spewing the information you just read onto the test, but many researchers have found out that cramming has no long-term benefits.
This is where the concept of the ‘forgetting curve’ and ‘spaced learning’ comes in. In 1885, Ebbinghaus noticed that people have ‘forgetting curves’, where they lose what they learn if it is not recalled regularly. A way to go against this inevitable circumstance is using ‘spaced learning’. Instead of learning the material in one go and finishing it, repeating the concept a few times between sufficient intervals can help your brain encode the information in different ways (Bjork & Allen, 1970).
The more ways you can encode information, the better you will understand and the longer it will stay in your memory by strengthening and expanding the neural connections during recall. Next time when you’re using, say, flashcards to learn, don’t try to go through the stack in one go. Instead, separate them into smaller stacks (e.g. three stacks) and make it your goal to learn one of them a day, and repeat through rotation. If you decide to link those materials together to form a stronger schema, you’ll be invincible (learn more about schemas and organisation here).
This is also why sleep is a crucial ‘step’ for memory retention. When you cram your studies, you’ll often study while sacrificing sleep. The lack of sleep means that you don’t get the benefit of memory consolidation, a process that is needed for the next step, which is memory recall (Ellenbogen et al., 2006). Sleep breaks the cycle of acquiring information and allows your brain to take the time to brush up on the newly created synapses. Another point for spaced learning; cramming is still at zero.
If you’re the type of person to create notes to study, I’ll let you in on a secret — that’s just the very beginning of your learning. Often, you would be in a situation where you would just make your notes, be really proud that you’ve done that, and just reread what you’ve written. This is quite time-consuming and doesn’t have nearly the desired effects. Unfortunately, passive learning doesn’t test your cognitive abilities enough.
Active recall, however, tells a different story. This process involves the active retrieval of information from memory. In Karpicke & Blunt’s study in 2011, the researchers split students into four groups conditioned for different tasks to learn the same material before they were tested.
Group 1 was told to read the material once
Group 2 was told to read the material 4 times
Group 3 read the material and created a mind map
Group 4 read the material once and then recalled as much as possible
The 4th group went through the process of active recall, who, in the end, significantly outperformed the other groups. Testing yourself once is more effective than rereading your notes four times. All in all, the exam at the end of the term should not be the only time when you’re testing your ability to recall information. Revision should be cognitively demanding, which only occurs through active learning.
In order to incorporate this into your study, try writing down as many pieces of information from memory after studying. Learn the topic first by reading through the textbook instead of copying it word for word. Another way to change ‘note-taking’ into a more active process, don’t forget to write down questions. This allows you to engage in the material that you’re trying to learn.
Efficient memory retention, consolidation, and recall doesn’t come easily. However, the ‘easy-way out’ might not be giving you the best options for learning. Try to make your study sessions as active as possible! Try these strategies out and see if it makes things easier in the long-run.
Bjork, R. and Allen, T., 1970. The Spacing Effect: Consolidation or Differential Encoding?. Bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu.
Ebbinghaus, H. (2013). Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Annals of Neurosciences, 20(4). https://doi.org/10.5214/ans.0972.7531.200408
Ellenbogen, J. M., Payne, J. D., & Stickgold, R. (2006). The role of sleep in declarative memory consolidation: passive, permissive, active or none? Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 16(6), 716–722. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.conb.2006.10.006
Karpicke, J. D., & Blunt, J. R. (2011). Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping. Science, 331(6018), 772–775. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1199327