Space out your study!

Most of us have experienced at one time or another – sitting in a classroom or lecture theatre, desperately trying to remember facts and figures as we scribble notes – trying to take it all in, only to find that as soon as the class is over, we can barely remember the name of the subject, much less the content! According to researchers, this conundrum is not unusual. Information is most easily lost immediately after the learning experience, when memory retention is at its most volatile. The situation is made all the more difficult when the student is required to attend one class after the other, as in school, where there is very little, if any, time allowed between classes – information overload! Each subsequent entry of new information will almost immediately erase the previous information taught.

From our earliest days of learning, repetition through repeated memory retrieval seems to best aid our chances of learning and retaining information. This occurs because as each time a memory is retrieved, it must be reconsolidated and with each reconsolidation, memory strengthens. While optimum spacing intervals have not been agreed upon, with a number of variables affecting time frames, the general consensus is that spaced learning is crucial to information retention.

Studies into the phenomena have revealed a number of interesting facts. One showed that repeated retrieval of learned material with long intervals resulted in a 200% enhancement in long-term retention. Students were given different length intervals of 15, 30 and 45 minutes, with no interval length more significant than any other.

A further study involving 1,350 subjects were taught a set of facts, and then tested for their long-term retention after 3.5 months. One year later, the same subjects were given a final test on the same set of facts. The outcome of the study indicated that the optimum gap between study sittings actually depended on when the material would be tested. With the majority of teachers unaware that the gap of one day should result in a test 7 days later, or that a gap of 21 days is best-tested 70 days later, students often sit tests according to education schedules and before the information has had the required time to go through the full process of memory retrieval.

As it is known that newly learned information is mostly forgotten within the first 24 hours after learning, a couple of repetitions soon after acquiring the knowledge will aid in the encoding of the material and initiating consolidation. Teachers can assist in this process by linking consecutive lessons.

Following are some helpful hints to improve long-term memory:

•                Organise material – develop concept maps, outlines and spider graphs.

•                Review information at least twice in the first 24 hours.

•                Identify key words and associate them with information you already know.

•                Don't multi task when you're studying - complete focus with no distractions.

•                Develop mental images for key words.

•                Read information aloud.

•                Take mental breaks.

•                Totally engage with the material and self-test.

•                Work with a study group

These are just a few tips to help you along your way, but this research does raise an interesting question… If most of us are failing to retain the important information we learn during study, should exam and review requirements become more stringent, so that we aren’t putting people to work in important roles that may require recall that results in a life or death situation? Food for thought!

The CFS Team
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