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Columnist Grayson Goss introduces spaced repetition as a way to retain information and study. Goss believes spaced repetition is more effective than traditional study methods such as reviewing lecture notes or rereading book chapters.

From calculus to physics, there are lots of difficult classes that are taught at Iowa State that require effortful learning to understand the concepts within each course. While most people are content with note taking and intense study sessions for aiding their studies in these subjects, others may need more help in remembering key concepts for the upcoming test and courses afterward that rely on the prerequisite coursework.

One such technique that can be used to aid in a student’s studies is called spaced repetition. It is essentially flashcards on steroids. It involves reviewing a flashcard and trying to remember its contents over an increasing number of days at various levels of retention.

Say you are trying to remember that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. If you got the review of that flashcard correct on day one, you would then review it on day two. If you got the review right on day three, you would then review the card on day four and so on. However, if you get a review wrong, you must start over, reviewing that card again at day one.

This practice of spaced memory retrieval begins to make sense when you take into account something called the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve. You may have heard about it in an intro psychology class. It theorizes that details and overall retention of a specific memory experience exponential decay over time unless the memory itself is refreshed and recalled at some point.

Spaced repetition acts as that recall mechanism to combat that exponential decay of memories. It makes sense on a physical level, as the neurons related to the memory are wired together more closely with every repetition. The effect of this spaced repetition is that the forgetting curve turns into a line. It will take an extremely long time for you to forget a concept or idea presented with this method.

Spaced repetition is not a time consuming process either, so you can use this process in tandem with your other learning techniques. If you only introduce five new cards every day, the process of reviewing each day’s required levels should only take about thirty minutes. That is a minuscule amount of time in comparison to the time spent in lectures, labs and recitations. It may also be of note that rereading a textbook or reviewing lecture notes are actually inefficient forms of studying when compared to spaced repetition.

The best part is that in this digital age, there are tools that exist for this type of memory retrieval system. Websites like Quizlet can help students review their flashcards with a free account. If you are looking for a more mobile version, AnkiDroid is a flashcard application that is useful for spaced repetition.

If you are struggling in class with hard topics and need a different way to study, spaced repetition may be a useful alternative to the traditional methods for aiding your studies as an Iowa State student.

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Letter to the Editor Submission Link

(1) comment

Steve Gregg

There are two principles of learning. The first one is repetition. The second one is repetition. There is a third one but I forget what it is.

There are foreign students for whom English is a second language. They may read the text as many as four times to command the material. Even English speakers don’t remember everything on the first read. Reading a chapter is like watching a movie. The more you see it, the better you remember. See it enough times and you can recite its lines by heart.

When you start a chapter, you should always flip to the back of it and read the summary first. That gives you an outline upon which to organize the facts of the chapter as you read. Your first read of the chapter is the icebreaker run. Give it a day and then read it again. Generally, it takes an hour to read a thirty page chapter. The second time through, it should take half the time.

Make sure you’ve read the chapter before you go to class. You should use the class to plug the holes in your knowledge of material. In class, you should be taking three to five pages of notes. Any less than that and you’re not paying attention. Any more than that and you’re just a stenographer who has no time to absorb the lecture.

The audience for these notes is you, the night before the test. Don’t blacken the page with ink, filling up every nook and cranny of the page. The only thing in college which is cheap and plentiful is loose leaf paper. Write for clarity, in an outline, in bullet points, only spelling out the most difficult things. Use lots of space to make it easy to read. If need be, type up your notes the same night, to make them clear. It will only take 30 minutes or less and going over them again is review that will give you greater command of the material.

If you are in a STEM class where you do problem sets, write each problem out as you solve it with steps explained. This is so you can easily review how to do the problem the night before the test and perhaps beyond in other classes. If you get a problem wrong, be sure to correct your steps and calculations.

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