Study Less and Learn More with the Spacing Effect

how to optimize studying

Today I’m going to answer the first and foremost question any learner has in mind.

What is the minimum amount of study time you need in order to score high on a test or a new task? 

This is exactly what I was wondering when I did my certificate in accounting. I had to know lots of rules and procedures with perfect accuracy, but I led a busy life, was efficiency-conscious, and had no intention of wasting precious time on unnecessary study.

First, you need to fully understand the power of the spacing effect, which the psychologist Frank Dempster called “one of the most remarkable phenomena to emerge from laboratory research on learning.”

The spacing effect says something we all intuitively know. With the same study time, you’ll remember more for longer if you learn your material a few times over a long period of time instead of repeatedly in a short period of time.

For example, a 1992 study showed that teaching third graders addition once a day for ten days was far more effective than twice a day for five days (Benedict Carey).

Now the real question is, what is the optimal learning schedule?

Intervals between your learning periods should be as long as possible to get the most of the spacing effect (i.e. the minimum number of repetitions), but short enough to make sure knowledge is still remembered.

According to the creator of SuperMemo, Piotr Wozniak, ever-expanding intervals are the most effective way to increase your knowledge. For example, you should review your material one day after your initial study, then a week later, then a month later and so on and so forth.

If you only have little time in front of you, you can’t afford this golden rule though.

In How We Learn, Benedict Carey presents this typical case. Let’s say you have a window of 15 days and 9 hours to spend on studying, here’s the optimal schedule:

  • 3 hours on day 1,
  • 3 hours on day 8,
  • 3 hours on day 14.

As a peak learner, it’s crucial to leverage the power of the spacing effect. This needs planning though. See when your deadline is and how much time you have for review or rehearsal. Then design the schedule leading to the best result.

Remember, efficiency means getting great results with the least time and effort.

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