This is it, you decided to study ahead of time for that big exam, no more cramming in the last 3 days to get an average or below average grade. Besides, a week later it’s like you did a wipe on your disc and all the information is gone.
Not this time, you will knock it out of the park, you’ll remember everything because you’ll study with enough time to revise and polish your weak points. So, how do you start? How much is enough time to study for a test? How often do you have to revise your notes? How can you be able to memorize everything?
Around 140 years ago Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist was dealing with these same issues, well, maybe not the same, but he was wondering, how much we forget in a lapse of time; he experimented on himself, and the results opened a door to many more investigations around memory and human learning.
What is the forgetting curve
He attempted to discover the rate of forgetting meaningless material and also significant (meaningful) material during the first thirty days after it had been learned. Determining the amount of information that had been forgotten during the following intervals: 19 minutes, 65 minutes, 8 hours, 1 day, 2 days, 6 days, 30 days.
This can be graphically represented in a curve as the percentage of information lost over time when there’s no reviewing process involved.
Have you ever wondered how long does it take to forget something we just learned? Ebbinghaus had the same question and answered it.
What describes the typical forgetting curve
We start forgetting newly learned information around 20 minutes after reading it, and more than half of the material is forgotten during the first hour. After that, the curve tends to lower at a slower rate.
What?! There´s no way! How can I stop this?
It is pretty doable, by getting ahead and revising the materials before we completely forget them.
So, if you are the kind of student that stocks on huge piles of information and goes class after class, taking the first one for granted, let me show you a more effective way to study without having to spend much more time.
Why is the forgetting curve important
If we take advantage of how our brains work, we can use this forgetting curve in our favor.
Turns out, that forgetting is part of learning, if we don’t forget, and feel the need to get that piece of information back, our brains don’t take it as relevant.
If we get our efforts back on the subject we learned yesterday, the path to get it in front of our heads will easier.
Think of it as a path that hasn’t been transited enough and it’s on the other edge of the grass, the more often you go through it, the easier it will be to get there. That’s kind of how our memory works.
How to overcome forgetting
It is not about forgetting, it is about remembering before we forget the whole thing, and by doing so build stronger learning.
There is a method called spaced repetition, taking as a base the forgetting curve to work for us. Keeping in mind the amount of time in which the data in our brains gets lost, we can actively revise our knowledge, if we need to use it, we will remember it.
The spacing means that on crescent time intervals we will have to study again, 1 day after, 3 days after, 6 days after, and then 25 days after the first time we studied the material.
How to remember newly learned information
Make sure you understand the piece of info laying in front of you, a mechanical memorizing of terms won’t do the work. Try and recognize where it comes from and how do the parts of it stick together.
Take concise notes of your material, and make questions to work with in future revision sessions. This is a habit that some students don’t have, prepare for the exam since the first study session.
Make possible exam questions, this gets your brain to work by reconstructing the information into questions.
When to review and how to do it
The day after your first study session on that subject, before you jump to the next one, do a quick review of what you’ve learned yesterday, take a quick read to your notes.
After reading your notes, answer the questions made by yourself on that first study session and get a couple more questions to work with, this is active learning.
Think about a problem you could solve with this knowledge you have, recite step by step how would you solve the problem with what you’ve learned.
For example, while learning about the knee ligaments, our professor mentioned the clinical application to it and how the soccer players were prone to have lesions in this specific area.
So, in my head, I would have to examine a patient and with the anatomy knowledge I have, decide whether a certain movement on the knee is natural (based on the disposition of the ligaments) or if it’s a sign of lesion.
This is how spaced repetition works, you should practice this active review 1 day, 3 days, 6 days, and 25 days after your initial study session.
How to study with flashcards and implement spaced repetition
The first time I ever heard of the Ebbinghaus curve and spaced repetition was on a Youtube video by my favorite study guru Thomas Frank, he explains in a very simple way how to get the best out of flashcards with a system that works.
Putting on different boxes the cards you have successfully remembered, and the ones you failed to remember. Therefore focusing your efforts on the cards you didn’t get right. You’ll need around 5 boxes to have different intervals of time to revise each group of flashcards.
Best apps for spaced repetition system
If you like to study with flashcards, there are plenty of apps really helpful to create your flashcards and have them with you to review anywhere and anytime.
– Anki: the best feature of this app, is that it comes integrated with your forgetting curve system, it shows you the material you need to review based on the last time you revised each flashcard successfully, you just have to create your flashcards, review them and let the app do its magic.
– Memrise: it has a more attractive design than Anki and you can customize better your flashcards, plus there is a wide variety of Memrise cards that other users have created and are available for you to use.
– Quizlet: the process of creating flashcards with this app is the easiest, you got definitions included for a wide variety of subjects, and by simply typing a term you can choose content that is already on the app for the back of the card.
How to apply spaced repetition in college
It all comes down to time management, make a list of all the topics you need to study, then calculate how much time will it take you to study each one, if you have 20 topics to cover for an exam and it will take you 3 hours each one you’ll need 60 hours to study everything for the first time.
If you add 2 hours of revision (half an hour for every day you need to review) that sums up to 100 hours of total study for this exam,
|3 hours of a first study session||
X 20 topics = 100 hours
|30 minutes the day after|
|30 minutes 3 days after|
|30 minutes 6 days after|
|30 minutes 25 days after|
|Total study time per topic = 5 hours|
You can use your study time however works best for you, take notes of the date you studied each topic the first time, and from there calculate when will you have to review it next time.
I’ll make it easier for you, you can download my free study schedule based on spaced repetition, this is by far the most effective way to remember everything to study.
Just set the date you should study each topic counting the days from the first lecture, and write it down on the grid, check off when you’ve successfully reviewed on time and keep track of your study sessions.
If you like this kind of resources let me know and I’ll come up with more ideas. Enjoy your learning!
I’m a medical student and mom of twins, I love to write and I’m sharing my journey in achieving my degree while raising happy kids.