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The Space-Time Continuum: How & Why to Space Your Time

We’ve all been there, even me. You might even be there right now.  You know the deal – it’s 10pm on a Sunday night.  You promised you would leave yourself time to study for your psychology exam, but you got caught up in weekend plans, the latest election news, and all of the other midterms you have to study for.  And let’s not forget about the two problem sets you also have due in the morning!  It seems that the hope you had when you first made that promise is slipping further and further down the drain.  Now, the exam is mere hours away, and it seems there’s nothing left to do but cram.  You stay up all night, attempting to review every single concept your professor introduced this semester.  You go through the motions of studying: rereading, highlighting, and underlining terms, as if to make up for the hours and days of lost time that you should have devoted to preparing for this exam.  

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Staying up late the night before an exam to cram is not an effective study strategy.

Fast forward to the exam itself, and on top of being exhausted, you’re struggling to recall what you reviewed.  You’re grasping at straws for answers, and it’s as if you have a general idea of what you want to say, but a solid understanding of the material simply isn’t there.  Even if you were able to remember a few things for this exam, the information you looked over is bound to follow the famed forgetting curve, and you’ll have to learn it all over again for the final exam (McBride & Cutting, 2019).   

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The forgetting curve proposes that we forgot information very quickly after learning it.

So let’s rewind.  Say you could go back in time in time and prepare differently.  What would you do?  Would you know where to begin?  Getting your work done definitely isn’t always going to be a fun experience, but there are absolutely alternative approaches to this that can help make the experience less stressful, and even better – more effective.  Studying can seem like a daunting task, especially when it is for something as all-encompassing as a big exam.  Especially for us college students, it can be extremely difficult to block off huge chunks in our busy schedules to devote to studying for one class, especially when these schedules also include sports, clubs, meals, and sleep.  To let you in on a helpful little secret: the best way to study is actually not to do this.  The spacing effect, a finding by psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus, lets us in on some helpful knowledge about good study habits.  Ebbinghaus demonstrated that the most effective way to retain information is to gradually study it in small chunks over time, as opposed to in mass amounts (McBride & Cutting, 2019).  

It turns out that Ebbinghaus was right on target when he proposed that our memories depend upon our attention and interest in the subject we are studying, along with the amount of information we aim to learn as compared to the time we have allowed ourselves to learn it (Ebbinghaus, 2013).  Over the years, studies have shown again and again that the spacing effect, especially when combined with other effective learning strategies, is proven to be the best study schedule for long term retention of information.  

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Spacing is a much more effective study strategy than last-minute cramming.

To begin with, spacing mitigates the learning process in general.  Doesn’t it sound more appealing to do a little bit of studying every day?  Who really has the time to devote an entire night to studying – especially when that night is right before the exam and you should be asleep.  A 2016 study at Columbia University found that, in terms of recall, it is actually more efficient to commit yourself to learning at spaced intervals than in mass amounts (Metcalfe & Xu, 2016).  Metcalfe and Xu presented subjects with multiple works by different artists either in a massed study condition or a spaced condition.  The massed condition participants were shown all of the works of art they were supposed to study successively, while the spaced condition participants were shown the works of art by the target artist mixed in with works by other artists.  All participants were later asked to identify works of art by the artist that they had studied during the presentation phase.  The researchers found that the massed learning participants were more likely to lapse their attention while the works of art were being presented, resulting in a tendency to mind wander.  The spaced learning participants exhibited a higher sustainability of attention, suggesting that mind wandering can be inhibited by gradual learning of new information (Metcalfe & Xu, 2016).  The results of this study suggest not only that mass study is not very effective, but that it might even be a waste of time.  Why commit yourself to learning more information at once, especially when this could take up so much more of your time, especially after accounting for the mind wandering that’s sure to happen?

The 2012 study Distributing Learning Over Time: The Spacing Effect in Children’s Acquisition and Generalization of Science Concepts also demonstrates some of the implications of the spacing effect – this time with elementary school student subjects.  Vlach and Sandhofer presented these children with three schedules of learning for the same amount of target information: massed study in one day, clumped study over two consecutive days, and spaced study over four consecutive days.  The researchers found that there was a significant relationship between the degree of the spacing of the subjects’ learning schedules and their ability to make generalizations about the information they had learned (Vlach & Sandhofer, 2012).  For example, the students who learned about food chains in the spaced study condition were able to make inferences later on about the placement of a new animal on a food chain based on its size, exhibiting their knowledge about the relationship between animal size and biome hierarchy.  The results of this study are particularly important as they reveal that differences in information retention exist as a result of various schedules of spaced study.  These findings are consistent with the idea that spaced study facilitates long-term retention of meaningful knowledge.  Vlach and Sanhofer’s study revealed that the students who studied in congruence with the spacing effect understood the information they had learned at a deeper level than those who did not, and could therefore make accurate inferences when tested on it (Vlach & Sandhofer, 2012).  And so, a light at the end of the dark tunnel of studying is revealed!  Spacing your learning over even just a couple of days as opposed to doing it all the night before the test can yield significant results.

Don’t get too excited, though.  The spacing effect isn’t going to solve all of your problems.  It is a common misconception that spacing can be applied to the target information in a sequenced study schedule (Kornell, 2014).  And so, not to be the bearer of bad news, but this means that in order to effectively study for your 10-unit exam, you need to space out the collective studying of the material over the time period you’ve allowed yourself.  It’s not much use studying all of unit 1 a week before the exam if you never circle back and review it.  

So how exactly does spacing translate that mountain of studying you have into a true, solid understanding of the material?  One of spacing’s main benefits is that it helps construct more varied retrieval cues than would exist in a cramming scenario.  Retrieval cues are stimuli that initiate access to learned information that has been stored in the long term memory (McBride & Cutting, 2019).  When we study at different times in different environments, we increase the likelihood that we will be able to recall that information at a later point, from any environment at any time.   Therefore, it is best to study under a variety of circumstances, in order to create as many retrieval cues as possible.  

Now that we understand what’s actually going on when we space, let’s move on to the best ways to ensure that you’re utilizing the benefits of this effect in their entirety.  Spacing is nothing without effective study techniques!

A significant factor that goes hand in hand with the spacing effect is chunking.  By separating the information you want to learn into organized chunks, it can be more easily processed and recalled later on, after practicing.  Chunks are defined by meaningful characteristics that describe the information contained within them.  The limitations of our working memory capacity relies on chunking to process information by association (Fonollosa et al., 2015)

In 2009, an education program developed by B. Price Kerfoot, demonstrated the improved recall ability that results from spaced study.  In Kerfoot’s program, students learned information that had been broken down into manageable chunks.  The students were then introduced to these chunks over specified time intervals, which ended up increasing their knowledge of the presented information by up to 50%.  There was also evidence from studies with Kerfoot’s program that learning by spacing with chunks strengthened memory traces to the target information for up to two years (Lambert, 2009).  

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Chunking similar information makes it easier to process the concepts you are attempting to learn.

Kerfoot’s program also involved another crucial factor in successful learning: processing for meaning.  Cognitive psychology involves a model that explains learning by levels of processing.  This model, developed by Craik & Lockhart in 1972, proposes that recall of information from memory is directly related to the depth of processing that occurred when that information was learned (McBride & Cutting, 2019).  Essentially, the more effort you put into learning, the better you will retain it.  In Kerfoot’s learning program, he witnessed an enhancement of students’ encoding of the information they were learning as a result of presenting it in quiz or test formats.  Known as the testing effect, this type of learning allows for some forgetting and relearning of the information to take place, effectively securing the information over time.  

Deep processing of information also occurs as a result of elaborative rehearsal.  Elaborative rehearsal is a learning strategy in which an association is actively made between information already secured in the long term memory and the novel information currently being learned.  In contrast to the mere repetition seen in other, less effective study strategies, such as rote rehearsal, elaborative rehearsal of information over time has been found to be significantly beneficial in storing and securing learned information into the long term memory.  By attaching meaning to what you are learning, you are effectively processing it at a deeper level, and therefore, will store it more securely in your long term memory.

These study strategies are of the utmost importance, especially now, in a time when so much of our academic success depends on Zoom meetings, online quizzes, and asynchronous courses.  It can be so easy to slip into a cycle of last minute massed study so you can complete assignments in the moment, but it would be a shame to waste an entire semester of learning this way.  A recent study, Self-Regulated Spacing in a Massive Open Online Course is Related to Better Learning, demonstrated the effectiveness of spacing in the context of self-regulated, student scheduled learning.  The researchers found that students who spaced their learning in online activities over time saw higher quiz and exam scores than those who attempted to complete them all at once (Carvalho, 2020).  

Think about how easy it is to remember all of the lyrics to your favorite songs when you’re singing them in a car full of friends.  Why is this?  If we apply the spacing effect to this scenario, it is clear that the reason you have such a deep, extensive knowledge of these songs lyrics is because you practice them constantly over time (most likely, a little bit every couple of days if it’s your all-time favorite song).  Sound familiar?  That’s exactly what you should be doing when the goal is topic mastery for your final exam!

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Continuous practice over time is the best way to secure information into your long term memory.

 

References

Carvalho, P.F., et al. (2020).  Self-regulated spacing in a massive open online course is related to better learning. Npj Science
of Learning
, vol. 5, no. 1, doi:10.1038/s41539-020-0061-1. 

Ebbinghaus, H. (2013). Memory: a Contribution to experimental psychology. Annals of Neurosciences, vol. 20, no. 4, doi:10.5214/ans.0972.7531.200408. 

Fonollosa, J, et al. (2015).  “Learning of chunking sequences in cognition and behavior.” PLOS Computational Biology, vol. 11, no. 11, doi:10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004592. 

McBride, D.M., & Cutting, J.C. (2019). Cognitive psychology: Theory, process, and methodology. Sage Publications, Inc.

Kornell, N. (2014).  Four things scientists get wrong about spacing effects. Psychology Today.

Lambert, C. (2009).  Learning by degrees. Harvard Magazine

Metcalfe, J, & Xu, J. (2016).  People Mind Wander More during Massed than Spaced Inductive Learning.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, vol. 42, no. 6, pp. 978–984., doi:10.1037/xlm0000216. 

Vlach, H. A., & Sandhofer, C. M. (2012). Distributing learning over time: The spacing effect in children’s acquisition and generalization of science concepts. PubMed Central U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, 1-11. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01781.x

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