After a summer of seemingly endless leisure and little to no studying, I recently took up law studies at a German university. What I initially expected to be somewhat of a continuation of attending classes in school quickly turned out to be a radical change. The sheer amount of study materials, academic disputes, and the extent to which every question can be dealt with in-depth; it all caught me very unexpectedly. I was amazed and frightened at the same time. Every theory, every idea has its rightful place — but how can I possibly pass any exam?
Scientific Insight On Spaced Repetition
Over the past couple of decades, researchers made great progress in understanding the ways in which the human brain operates. That‘s why today, there are dozens of psychological studies in support of spaced repetition. The fundamental idea is pretty simple: Because the brain performs substantially better when being actively engaged rather than passively consuming information, spaced repetition utilizes the concept of active recall. But unlike the latter method, it stretches the learning process over several weeks or even months. Every time information reaches the outer edge of your memory, every time it‘s just about to be forgotten, you‘ll need to actively recall it. This method is proven to strengthen the neural connections in a much more drastic way than simply revisiting a thought each and every day until it sticks. Your brain is tricked into a state of alertness: It‘s being told that it was about to forget valuable, precious information, which makes the new connection even stronger. This section is only a brief introduction to the concept of spaced repetition. If you‘d like to find out more about how science can explain its beneficial effects on memorization, it might be worth reading one of the many insightful blog articles, one of which I linked here.
The Spacing Effect: How to Improve Learning and Maximize Retention
We are not taught how to learn in school, we are taught how to pass tests. The spacing effect is a far more effective…
Flashcards — Spaced Repetition Made Easy
At first, spaced repetition might seem like a bit of an abstract concept. But it‘s one that students have been using for decades. Flashcards translate long term active recall into real life. And although they‘ve definitely exceeded their peak in popularity, these simple pieces of paper sorted in a specific way are powerful allies in learning new languages or remembering mathematical formulas. In today‘s world, which is frequently flooded with new technology, their impact on memorization can only be underestimated. A simple, yet powerful technique, separates successful students from unsuccessful ones.
It‘s not about how much time they spend on revisiting a certain topic but much more about the general approach. 15 minutes a day of recalling information using flashcards will get you further than an hour of reading a textbook.
Software: Anki Flashcards
Fortunately, today there‘s a powerful piece of software that makes flashcard organization a lot easier than in the past. Anki Flashcards (available across many different platforms) is an app specifically tailored towards the needs of students, enjoying popularity particularly among medical students. While you‘ll obviously still need to memorize all the information yourself, Anki helps with structuring the learning process. Every day, an algorithm decides on which flashcards to present you with. While studying, users can give feedback on how easy it was to recall a piece of content and Anki will arrange the flashcards accordingly.
What makes Anki stand out from its competitors is its versatility. While the user interfaced might seem a little bit outdated, there‘s basically no limit to how flashcards might be designed. You can add images, highlight parts of a longer text or create bidirectional cards. On all features, the development team offers extensive documentation. Anki is fairly easy to set up and once you‘ve formed a habit of going through flashcards on a daily basis, studying becomes quite convenient.
Using Key Information as an Anchor
Now that I‘ve introduced you to both the idea and appliance of spaced repetition, it‘s important to take a step back and consider to which extent information needs to be actively recalled. A technique that has proven itself to be particularly useful and time-efficient is shifting the attention towards essential information. After reading a textbook, or attending a lecture, try narrowing the content down to 3–5 key takeaways. Ideally, these takeaways then serve as an anchor for your mind, a point to which it can connect different fragments of knowledge.
There‘s no point in adding dozens of flashcards each day, because needless to say, there are limits to every learning process and there are limits to how much information your brain can precisely retain over long periods of time. These capacities are much greater with vague knowledge; active recall can only serve as a map to a much more scattered long term memory.
Key Takeaways From This Text
If you‘ve only skimmed through the text in search of its essence or found my explanation somewhat difficult to understand, here are the key takeaways:
- Spaced repetition is a scientifically proven method to enhance memorization (it‘s also much more time-efficient)
- Just like flashcards, apps such as Anki Flashcards (or even Quizlet too) bring this idea to practical usage
- It‘s sufficient to only memorize key information
For me as a student, spaced repetition has been a huge relief. It allows me to focus on actually understanding abstract theories and academic disputes, rather than always having to work on the basics. Because it‘s so easy to implement into almost any daily routine and takes up just a little bit of time each day, I can only encourage you to try studying this way too.