Repetition Is Your Friend: The Spacing Effect

A common misconception about school is that it teaches us how to learn. However, in my opinion, school doesn’t teach us how to learn, it teaches us how to pass tests. We pull all-nighters, cramming information into our brains, to ensure we have facts memorized. Often, we forget what we “learned” as soon as the test is over.

There’s a similar phenomenon in our professional lives. We try to memorize the names of people we meet, the script for a speech, or the key facts for a sales meeting. We announce a new strategy once during an All-hands meeting and hope employees remember the details.

There’s a better way to learn: spaced repetition.

Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once.

— John Medina, Brain Rules

We are more likely to recall concepts if we learn them in multiple sessions, spread out over time. Spaced repetition doesn’t require more effort but it does require better planning. The investment to learn has to begin long before the knowledge is needed. Instead of cramming, you’re nibbling.

Schools don’t use spaced repetition. Most lectures cover a single topic which the teacher doesn’t mention again – until the test. And most students don’t think about the topic either – until they’re cramming for the test the night before.

Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist and quantitative memory research pioneer, first identified the spacing effect in the late 1800’s. His research showed that 40% of new information is forgotten in 20 minutes and 70% after one day. More information could be retained by repeated exposure to material over a series of increasing intervals.

So how do you take advantage of spaced repetition to learn more? There are three major components:

Limit the length of learning sessions. All-night cramming is inefficient because attention spans are limited and we retain decreasing amounts of information over time. I recommend no more than 90-minute sessions (read the 90-minute rule).

Create a learning schedule. For example, after you’ve reviewed information for the first time, review it again an hour later. Wait a day and do it again; then every other day, weekly, every other week, monthly, etc. At every step, if you find yourself remembering more, you can reduce the frequency. If you remember less, increase the frequency.

Track progress. Tracking progress reinforces to ourselves that we are improving – even if it takes longer than expected. Positive reinforcement is crucial to overcome difficult points in the learning journey.

I’ve been applying these techniques in my professional life for many years. It’s common for me to repeat information several times, in several different ways, over an extended period of time. I counter the “we’ve already told them that” objection with the reality that most likely don’t remember what we’ve told them. When rolling out a new strategy, it’s not only important to have multiple sessions but to check how much employees are retaining after each session. Eventually the new strategy doesn’t feel new anymore.

As a former colleague of mine once quipped, when it comes to learning, repetition is your friend.

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