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Cramming is no way to learn

Your child has studied hard for that test or exam. You’ve witnessed her stress and anxiety building as the deadline looms. But suddenly she signals her readiness!

Then the news comes: the examination has been postponed. The new date is unknown.

Your child’s anxiety goes through the roof! Your stress levels follow.

“I’ll forget what I’ve learnt if I don’t do the exam tomorrow,” she cries.

“How will I remember what I’ve learnt if I have to wait longer?

Your student’s learning strategy has been upended, and you’re both angry.

What’s up with that?

Why, if your child has learned the material, would she fear forgetting?

Well, from the time we were in primary school we are taught how to pass tests. We spend hours memorising facts, equations, the names of elements, dates of historical events.

We frantically cram the night before the the test. We read through our notes over and over again in the hope that the information will stick on our brains. We are careful not to dislodge any of that vital material.

Once the test is over, we can relax. And, doubtless, we forget everything straight away.

Learning through rote memorisation is tedious and ineffective, but that’s the only strategy we’ve got. No wonder we feel helpless when the unexpected occurs.

We need to work with our brain, not against it.

To do that, we need to be aware of our brain’s limitations, and use smart ways to get around those limitations.

Spacing your learning rather than cramming it is an incredibly effective approach to learning.

We are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple, spread-out sessions.

Sure, it’s a slower process and it might not have the immediacy of cramming or the adrenaline rush of a frenzied last-minute dash, but using this method means you can learn almost anything and it can last a lifetime. This is because you are literally wiring your brain with that information.

You can think of it like this: your brain will retain information it hears over a period of time. If it is given information once, it rightly asks: “Is this information really as important as she says it is? And, hey, this other stuff she’s taking in like music lyrics seems more important to her.”

The spacing effect was first identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist and pioneer of quantitive memory research. His most important findings were in the areas of forgetting and learning curves.

The forgetting curve shows how a memory of new information decays in the brain, with the fastest drop occurring after 20 minutes and the curve levelling off after a day.

There is a way to slow down the process of forgetting.

We need only to recall the information after we originally came across it and later at intervals.

This will help us remember more, and with persistence will allow us to recall with 100 per cent accuracy all that we want to remember.

The Learning Curve is the inverse.

It illustrates the rate at which we learn new information. When we use spaced repetition, the forgetting curve changes - for the good!

There are other ways to improve memory.

Intensity of emotion is important, as is the intensity of attention.

How easily do you retain information on a subject you love? Try using that emotion with subject material that is of less interest to you.

Also, how quickly do you learn a new skill in your favourite sport? Likely, at training you practice the same skill repeatedly, and you put a great amount of focus on getting it right. Try that approach of focussed concentration next time you are in class.

Ebbinghaus also uncovered something striking: even when we appear to have forgotten information, a certain amount is stored in our subconscious minds.

These ‘savings, as he referred to them, cannot be retrieved consciously, but they speed up the process of relearning the same information later on.

There is no definitive explanation for why the spacing effect works. However a number of factors are believed to help:

Forgetting and learning are linked: When we review information at close to the point of forgetting, our brains reinforce the memory as well as add new details.

How do we make this work for us? Using practice papers and teaching other people are two of the most effective ways for students to revise because those methods highlight what has been forgotten.

I mentioned this earlier, but it’s worth highlighting again. Our brains attach greater importance to repeated information. That makes sense, because information that we use regularly, like our telephone number or a PIN, tend to be more important than that which we come across only once.

We don’t learn about spaced repetition in school - something which baffles many researchers.

Most classes teach a single topic per session, then don’t repeat it until the test.

Most teachers expect their students to take care of the memorising part themselves.

This leads to bad learning habits like cramming to cope with the demands of classes.

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