How much students can remember plays a key role in their exam success. So can we improve our memory? Is cramming really a successful revision method? What if spacing out your revision sessions was more effective? This would mean students could do the same amount of work but yield much greater results from it.
The Spacing Effect
The ‘Spacing Effect’ is one of the longest and most enduring findings in cognitive psychology. It was first detailed in 1885 by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus who found that humans tend to forget large amounts of information if they only learn something once.
Since then, research has consistently shown the power of spacing out your learning. This means doing little and often, instead of a lot all at once. This is an effective technique, as it allows time for the material to be forgotten and re-learnt. This process allows someone to cement it into their long-term memory, (our blog on the exam countdown talks about this in more detail).
In some studies, using spacing instead of cramming has resulted in a 10% to 30% difference in final test results. This finding has been found throughout a range of tasks, including remembering key words, random facts or solving maths problems.
One such study found that those who spaced out their revision scored higher on average (74%) than students who crammed their revision (49%). Researchers from The University of California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of South Florida devised an experiment to explore the optimum amount of time to leave between revision sessions. They found that the longer you need to remember something for, the more you need to space out revision sessions.
For a more in-depth look at the research, check out these installments of our Studies That Every Teacher Needs to Know series:
Practical classroom implications
With students no longer doing modular exams, the ability to retain and recall large pieces of information has become even more important. It is now a premium skill. Teachers can help students improve their long-term memory by spacing out the material and revisiting it regularly.
Just as actors don’t leave all their rehearsals until the day before the opening night of a play, and athletes don’t only train the day before the match, so students should regularly return to previously learnt material. This is probably at odds with many conventional educational practices—for example, study of a single topic being confined within a given week of a course.
To commit something to memory, it takes time and repetition. Essentially, when students are revising, it is far more effective to do 1 hour a day for 7 days than it is to do 7 hours in one day. The nearer it gets to an exam, the more often they will need to return to the material. This is something for students to carefully consider when doing revision timetables, as it is not just the ‘what’ that matters, but the ‘when’ as well.
For more tips on revision techniques, have a look at our best ways to revise page, with more blogs and free resources.