Almost every subject you’ll study has some aspect of memorization.
Foreign language? Vocabulary.
Literature? Characters and who’s who.
Philosophy? Definitions and ideas and who said them.
In any subject, the difficulty isn’t “memorizing the thing” as much as it is “making the memorization stick.”
We’ve all had the experience of going hardmode on studying the day or two before an exam, passing the exam, and then immediately forgetting everything.
Enter spaced repetition, the most powerful tool you’re probably not using.
What is spaced repetition?
According to ye olde Wikipedia, “Spaced repetition is a learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.”
Let me ‘splain.
It’s basically periodically reviewing your stuff so you don’t forget it.
But not just “I’ma flashcards every day!”
No, spaced repetition is all about efficiency. You actually end up only reviewing things right before you’re about to forget them.
And we know what that “you’re about to forget them” point is because Science.
To tech or not to tech?
You can go two routes with this: techy or non-techy.
For flashcards and smaller chunks of memorization, the techy route is much easier and will save you more time in the long run.
The primary argument for non-techy is that by physically writing things down you remember them better. This is true, and I absolutely recommend you handwrite your in-class notes for that precise reason. (More on this method later.)
Ultimately it depends on personal preference and you experimenting to find out what works best for you. So, I’ll give you a couple different ways of using spaced repetition, and show you how you could do it either way.
How to do spaced repetition
The most basic example of how to use spaced repetition is with vocabulary flashcards.
Let’s say you have a stack of 100 words and definitions to learn. That’s a lot.
Instead of brute-force going through those 100 words every day, you do the smart thing and use spaced repetition
First, make the flashcards. (Of course!)
Then, review them like normal … the first time.
If you get a card wrong, just drop it in a stack of cards to review tomorrow.
If you got a card right — enter the spaced repetition — that means you know the word (at least right now). No need to hammer that in tomorrow. Put it in a different stack of cards you’ll review in a couple days.
On that day, you’ll pull out that day’s stack and away you go.
It really is that simple.
Going the tech route is good for flashcard-style review in particular. There are websites and apps (Quizlet is a personal favorite) that automate the spaced repetition/different stacks of cards part of things for you, so all you need to do is open it up, enter your flashcards, and start studying.
Yes, writing out things by hand is useful and helps them stick, but I think that the time you’ll save by using a software solution in this case will more than make up for it.
Try a few different things and see what works best for you.
How to do spaced repetition for studying notes
In all honesty, I can’t just give you a one-size-fits-all-students solution when it comes to using spaced repetition for studying your notes.
What I can do is tell you what I did and how it worked for me. So away we go!
When I was in college, I had about ten minutes between classes, and a few hours here and there.
Here’s what my process was:
- I took handwritten notes during class.
- At the end of class or in those ten minutes between classes, I’d glance over the notes I took, mark any questions I had, ask the professor if needed, and just generally fill in any large gaps.
- Every evening, I’d type up my notes and usually filled in more information. For example, I’d turn bullet points I’d written into full-fledged sentences. I used OneNote for this at the time … it’s up to you what you use, but something with some organization built in is nice.
- Once a week, I reviewed all my notes for the week. If something was remotely unfamiliar in the least I spent some more time on it, looking things up in the textbook or online as needed, or taking note to ask my professor at the next opportunity.
- Every couple weeks, when test time rolled around, I’d review all my notes again.
And that was it! I was reviewing things at roughly the 1 hour mark, 8 hours, 7 days, and 14 days. If I was real smart I would have thrown in a 3-day-mark review, too.
Spaced repetition really can be that simple. Just set up a schedule and you’re good to go.
Ultimately, spaced repetition is simply something that you can use to make your hard work a little more efficient.
It doesn’t replace hard work!
But it makes the work you do mean more.
I don’t want to dwell too much on that aspect of things, but it is important — this isn’t a gimmick or a “get-good-grades hack.” It’s a tool. And tools don’t just work by themselves. You have to put some effort into it!
If you’d like some help integrating spaced repetition into your own academic life, or need some motivation to keep you accountable to your schedule, check out my Lifelong Learner Mastermind Group. It might help you out.
And as always: never stop learning!
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