The Spacing Effect: How to retain information

Perhaps the most important skill you can learn to get ahead is how to learn. Learning allows you to change and keep up with the rest of the world. The person who is able to acquire new skills easily and respond quickly to changing factors is often the person who succeeds. The same applies for businesses — the business which can evolve the quickest wins. You only have a limited amount of time, which means that the time you do have should be spent learning things you will actually remember over time.

We all have things we need to remember. High school students need to spend hours of their time learning facts, question structures, analysis for essays, and more. And outside of institutional education we have to learn about things which help us to our jobs: new technical terms, statistics, information about an organization, and more. However, many of us do not learn this information effectively. The high school student will often try to cram facts into their mind before the test. And what happens after the test? They forget almost everything because they do not need it. When we are trying to remember things for work, we often use informal processes and find it difficult to retain the information we have acquired.

What is the spacing effect?

The spacing effect is one way you can better retain information. The effect states that we are better able to remember information if we learn them in multiple small sessions, rather than in one sitting. Rather than cramming all of the knowledge you need for an exam the night before, you should sit down each night and spend a few minutes recalling the knowledge you need to know.

The information we learn through using the spacing effect will stay in our minds for significantly longer than what we learn through cramming or other similar memorization techniques. The spacing effect makes it easy for us to acquire new information effectively, if we know how to use it. Let’s say you wanted to learn a new language. Should you sit down and cram information for hours a day? No — it wouldn’t be the most effective technique. But if you sat down for 30 minutes each day to learn the language, over time your skills would improve. This is the art of compounding at work.

The spacing effect was discovered by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist and a researcher focused on memory. Ebbinghaus did not believe in the way other people thought about memory at the time. So instead of thinking about all of the current theories, he approached the topic with an experimental mindset. Through his work, he drew forgetting and learning curves. These were graphs which represented how much of something we could remember or forget over time.

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Ebbinghaus’ graph found that after 20 minutes of learning something new, we would only remember about 60 percent of it; after 31 days, we would only remember 20 percent of it. Knowing this allows us to figure out how we can improve our retention. Instead of learning a fact once, we should learn it multiple times. Reading over a fact later will increase the likelihood we will remember more of that fact in the longer term.

Frequency in learning

The spacing effect is based on the idea that we need to frequently go back to information in order to retain it best. Most of us already know this, but do not use it in practice. Could you write me an essay about the last book you have read? Would you have enough information to write a good essay? Most likely not. But if you had read that book multiple times, you would have more information to work from.

If we leave facts to sit in our brain, we will forget them over time. Cramming information does not work because we will forget almost everything we have learned very quickly. Rather, we should try to learn in frequent intervals so when our knowledge starts to decay, we pick it back up again. Ebbinghaus also discovered that even when we think we have forgotten something, a small amount of that information will be stored in our subconscious. Although we do not know that information is still in our mind, it can help us when we are trying to recall something if we keep repeating the information.

Memories take a long time to form. They are formed by many different parts of the brain coming to work together to create pathways which store knowledge. When you learn something new, many different parts of your brain will be at work. And each part will play a different role — one part of your mind will remember sounds, another will remember emotions, et cetera. Memories do not remember everything because they need time to process information. But if we space out our learning, we can start to recall more of that information.

How does the spacing effect work?

There are a couple of different explanations as to why the spacing effect works. Here are the main two:

1. Our brains think repeated information is more important

When we encounter a certain piece of information multiple times, our brain can think it is more important. Our email password, for example, is something we will use every time we log in to our email account — an activity many of us do frequently. And because we do it frequently, our brain thinks the information is important. The brain does not want to forget information it could use later — information which makes it easier for us to cope with changing circumstances — and so it is more likely to remember the fact.

2. Recalling information encodes it deeper into our brain

The more time we spend remembering something, the easier it will be to recall the information in the future. That does not mean we should cram information, to the contrary. Rather, we should be deliberate when trying to remember a fact, and spend time thinking about it after we have first learned that information. Recalling information strengthens the pathways our brain makes to remember facts.

There are a number of other expected causes for the spacing effect — semantic priming, deficient processing, and more — and the topic continues to confuse researchers to this day. We don’t learn about the spacing effect in school, and indeed schools do not incorporate the concept into the day — when you learn something in a class, the next lesson will likely be about something different. This means that many of us default to cramming — the technique other people have told us has worked, and the one which involves less work over the long-term. But this technique is inefficient.

How can we used the spacing effect?

There are a few things we can do:

1. Review information every so often.

When you are learning something new, resolve to come back to that information on a frequent cadence. Let’s say you are learning all of the U.S. State capitals. Rather than doing one cram session, you would incrementally learn the capitals, and each day you would come back to them and revise what you had learned. If you have forgotten something, go back and learn it again.

2. Create a positive feedback loop

When you are trying to learn anything new, you should aim to create a positive feedback loop. After you have finished learning something, give yourself a reward. Many learning platforms use leaderboards, points, goals, and rewards to help encourage you to keep going — when we receive something good in exchange for our learning, it makes our brain more likely to do that thing again.

3. Use spaced repetition software

Anki is a spaced repetition tool which makes it easy for you to leverage this technique. You can add all of the information you need to remember to Anki, and it will use the spacing effect to help you remember what you have uploaded.

The spacing effect is one of many ways to get ahead. Rather than thinking about something once and assuming our mind has remembered all of the information, we need to recall it on multiple occasions. And the more we recall something, the stronger the memory will be. It may not sound as good as cramming — spaced repetition is slow and deliberate — but because very few people do it, those who do can get ahead.