“If you want to test your memory, try to recall what you were worrying about one year ago today.”

The above quote by E. Joseph Cossman aptly captures the essence of how our brain retains information – First In, First Out. Remembering things we learned a long time ago – names, actions, words – is directly related to the amount of time that has passed since you encountered this information for the first time. As an example, try remembering the names of some of your classmates from Grade 1. Do you notice that the names that come to mind first are that of people you had several interactions with, possibly people you were close to or met at a later point in time?

The same applies in learning. Facts and figures we encounter only once tend to fade out over time compared to those we apply and use repeatedly. In our academic system, on average, a student in grade 8 – 10 needs to memorize 50 – 60 formulae and definitions to be able to make optimum use of their time during an exam. Add to this a host of other definitions, theorem, principles they learnt in earlier grades and the resulting work load seems like a herculean task for most students. Is there some way students can retain important information for longer periods of time without much effort?

It is this thought that led psychologists to study how our brains retain information. They found that while it is true that we all forget things we have learned over a period of time, this act of forgetting typically follows an exponential pattern, called the Forgetting Curve (Ebbinghaus, 1885/1913, Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology).

The following is an illustration of the forgetting curve for material learned in a classroom.

As is evident from the figure above, periodic revision, scheduled just before we start to forget something, has a significant impact on the forgetting curve. Over a period of time, notice that the time interval between review and forgetting increases considerably, which also means that the time interval between subsequent reviews increases with time.

In simple words, this means that the more we revisit some information, the less likely we are to forget it quickly.

Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is a learning technique designed to help remember chunks of information over a longer period of time. The technique incorporates increasing intervals of time between consecutive reviews of previously learned material to ensure it is entrenched in longer term memory. This technique is typically used in second language acquisition for learning vocabulary but has been tested, in a variety of formats, for its use in learning science.

C.A. Mace (1932), in his book Psychology of Study, first proposed the idea that spaced repetition could be used for improving learning. Thereafter, several research studies were conducted in various contexts to establish the impact of the spaced repetition algorithm on learning.

So how does this work and what impact can it have on exam performance? Suppose you learn a formula today. Research shows that revisiting the same formula within 24 hours greatly improves the chances of recalling that formula later. However, that’s not enough. Over time, as shown above, you will start to forget this formula as your brain starts to get overcrowded with new formulae, definitions, facts, etc. To avoid this, you will need to revisit the formula again and again, say after 2 days, 8 days, 16 days, etc. The amount of time after which you revisit the formula can increase over time. Also, the manner in which you revisit the formula can be different – you could apply it in a solution, derive the formula again or simply look at it and read it aloud.

This way, something you learnt at the beginning of the school year, can continue to be fresh in your memory during the exams and even later in subsequent years. Imagine what that can do to your confidence levels during the exam and the impact it can have on exam performance!

Vidyanext tip to get better results
As a parent, you can play an important role in ensuring your child benefits from the spaced repetition. Here’s how:

  • Encourage her/him to schedule a fixed amount of time every day for review, especially through Vidyanext scheduled quizzes – openly praise consistent behaviour
  • Have conversations with your child about her/his performance on the Vidyanext quizzes – commend/reward good performance.
  • Talk to your child’s tutor about specific areas of difficulty for your child. Make sure she/he reviews those topics every day.