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Spaced Repetition - Cramming For Tests Meets Its Match
8th October 2021 • The Science of Self • Peter Hollins
00:00:00 00:13:46

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Spaced repetition implores you to focus on frequency rather than duration of learning. This has been proven to be more effective than most other conventional study schedules. This is why cramming during an all-nighter doesn’t work so well and why planning your study schedule is of utmost importance.

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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition. Visit to pick up your FREE human nature cheat sheet: 7 surprising psychology studies that will change the way you think.

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Spaced repetition—otherwise known as distributed practice—is just what it sounds like.

In order to commit more to memory and retain information better, you space out your rehearsal and exposure to it over as long of a period as possible. In other words, you learn information and skills far better if you study them for one hour each day versus twenty hours in one weekend. Similarly, research has shown that seeing something twenty times in one day is far less effective than seeing something ten times over the course of seven days. So much for cramming.

What does this say about how to practice? Spaced repetition is the concept that five minutes a day is far superior to learning and memory than an hour a week. When you focus on frequency of learning versus duration or even intensity, you will learn better. Focusing on duration usually becomes motion for motion’s sake and can oftentimes become detrimental overall to your goals.

Again, think of the brain as a muscle. Muscles can’t be exercised all the time and then put back to work with little to no recovery. Your brain needs time to make connections between concepts, create muscle memory, and generally become familiar with something. Sleep has been shown to be where neural connections are made, and it’s not just mental. Synaptic connections are made and dendrites are stimulated in your brain.

If an athlete works out too hard in one session like you might be tempted to do in studying, one of two things will happen. The athlete will either be too exhausted and the latter half of the workout will have been useless, or the athlete will become injured. Rest and recovery are necessary to the task of learning, and sometimes effort isn’t what’s required.

So when you focus on frequency, suddenly you have a clear structure to organize your practice with. Without a plan in place, most people will just study and practice until their eyes or fingers bleed and they collapse from exhaustion, but that’s not working smart, just hard. If you follow what spaced repetition prescribes, you’ll have your schedule for optimal learning set up for you.

Let’s take studying for a topic you have trouble with: Spanish history. If you have trouble with this topic, that just means even more frequency should be devoted to it. A study or practice schedule focused solely on duration would be relentless from Monday to Sunday. Here’s a look at what an optimized schedule focused on frequency might look like.

Monday at:

Monday at 8:00 p.m. Review notes about Spanish history, but don’t just review passively. Make sure to try to recall the information from your own memory. Recalling is a much better way to process information than simply rereading and reviewing. This might only take twenty minutes.

Tuesday at:

Tuesday at 8:00 p.m. Review notes. This will take ten minutes.

Wednesday at 4:00 p.m. Try to independently recall the information again, and only look at your notes once you are done to see what else you have missed. This will take only ten minutes. Make sure not to skip any steps.

Thursday at 6:00 p.m. Review notes. This will take ten minutes.

Friday at:

Looking at this schedule, note that you are only studying an additional 75 minutes throughout the week but that you’ve managed to go through the entire lesson a whopping six additional times. Not only that, you’ve likely committed most of it to memory because you are using active recall instead of passively reviewing your notes. Even if you take your time to be thorough and double the overall time to 150 minutes, it’s still a fraction of what you would have previously spent to do far less.

It’s astonishing what you can accomplish in short periods of time if you focus on frequency and don’t allow yourself to drift. Scheduling relatively shorter time periods for material keeps you on your toes and prevents you from slipping into laziness if you were to schedule huge blocks of time for one task.

You’re ready for a test the next Monday. Actually, you’re ready for a test by Friday afternoon. Spaced repetition gives your brain time to process concepts and make its own connections and leaps because of the repetition.

Think about what happens when you have repeated exposure to a concept or skill. For the first couple of exposures, you may not see anything new. As you get more familiar with it and stop going through the motions, you begin to examine it on a deeper level and think about the context surrounding it. You begin to relate it to other concepts or information, and you generally make sense of it below surface level.

There is no mindless motion: it must be active and engaged—which you can only do in short spurts. Flashcards are particularly useful for this, especially if you keep shuffling them and putting them into different orders.

It also helps to pick a different starting spot in the material for each session so you are mixing up the order and aren’t just going over the same spots each time. The idea is to keep injecting freshness and different perspectives on the same material that you’re seeing multiple times a day.

All of this is designed to push information from your short-term memory into your long-term memory. That’s why cramming or studying at the last minute isn’t an effective means of learning. Very little tends to make it into long-term memory because of the lack of repetition and deeper analysis. At that point, it becomes rote memorization instead of the concept learning we discussed earlier, which is destined to fade far more quickly.

Hopefully from this point on, instead of measuring the number of hours you spend on something, try instead to measure the number of times you can revisit it. Make it your goal to increase the frequency of reviewing, not necessarily the duration. Ideally you have both, but the literature on spaced repetition makes clear that breathing room is more important.

Spaced repetition generally has two different uses. You can use it for initial learning, but you can also use it to prevent forgetting and to ensure things stick in your brain. The above example was focused on the initial learning phase, but a sample schedule to prevent forgetting and to simply keep things in mind will look a bit lighter. It will strategically touch upon information just enough to keep it in your mind, but not too much as to waste time or hit the point of diminishing returns (which is when you have already memorized it).

For example, Monday::

Imagine a path in a garden that gets worn with time. The path is a memory in your brain, and it takes a certain amount of repetitions to become deep enough to stand on its own. Even a few repetitions can make a huge difference as to how clear the path becomes and how long the path will last.

If you’re really pressed for time, just know that studying something twice is better than once, almost always. If you want to improve your memory and skill instantly, review something for fifteen minutes before you sleep at the end of your day. That’s all it takes to get a head start on others and learn better. Just in case you are looking for a more step-by-step guideline on using spaced repetition and optimizing for frequency, here are four points.

1. Copy my study plan regarding Spanish history. Seven times a week sounds like a lot, but in reality, it ends up only being an extra one to two hours. This helps you keep focused and capitalizes on the way your brain prefers to absorb information. Calibrate your plan to whether you are in the initial learning phase or the “don’t forget” phase.

2. Prioritize frequency—at least once a day, but ideally twice a day over the course of a week. Measure in terms of how many times you can get through the material—i.e., repetitions—and not how long you spend on it. Again, calibrate this to whether you are in the learning phase or the “don’t forget” phase.

3. Engage with the material each time and don’t just go through the motions. This might require you to create different and creative ways to look at the same thing over and over. As mentioned, you can use different starting points, different flashcards, and overall different ways of reading the same material over and over. Vary the input method here.

4. Test yourself. Don’t skip over things and don’t just review, read, or recognize. If it feels too easy, you aren’t learning optimally.

Self-Testing and Retrieval Practice

Retrieval practice makes us dig deep into our memory banks and work hard mentally, but at the same time, it’s one of the most effective ways of truly learning information. It is the third pillar of self-learning.

We typically consider learning as something we absorb—something that goes into our brains: the teacher or textbook spits facts, data, equations, and words out at us, and we just sit there and collect them. It’s merely accumulation—a very passive act.

This kind of relationship with learning returns knowledge that we don’t retain for very long because, even though we get it, we don’t do much with it. For best results, we have to make learning an active operation.

That’s where retrieval practice comes into play. Instead of putting more stuff into our brains, retrieval practice helps us take knowledge out of our brains and put it to use. That’s what cements memory. That seemingly small change in thinking dramatically improves our chances of retaining and remembering what we learn. Everyone remembers flashcards from our childhood days. The fronts of the cards had math equations, words, science terms, or images, and the backs had the “answer”—the solution, definition, explanation, or whatever response the student was expected to give.

The idea of flashcards sprouts from this concept. This approach is neither new nor very complicated: it’s simply recalling information you’ve already learned (the back of the flashcard) when prompted by a certain image or depiction (the front).

Retrieval practice is one of the best ways to increase your memory and fact retention. But even though its core is quite simple, actually using retrieval practice isn’t quite as straightforward as just passively using flashcards or scanning over notes we’ve taken. Rather, retrieval practice is an active skill: truly struggling, thinking, and processing to finally get to the point of recalling that information without clues—much of what we’ve discussed already in this book that accelerates learning.