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Effective Study Strategies #2: Taking advantage of testing and spacing effects

In the preceding blog post we shed light on common pitfalls for students while studying. It became evident that relying on last-minute cramming for an upcoming exam is suboptimal. Instead, effective time management and finding a suitable study environment are essential components of successful studying. This brings us to the next step of our guide for effective learning strategies. While there is a vast array of learning methods available, my focus today is directed towards two powerful techniques that can significantly enhance the efficiency of your study sessions: testing and spacing. More specifically, I will delve into the definitions and advantages of the testing effect and the spacing effect, illustrating how these phenomena can be collectively integrated into your study routine and can enhance your study outcomes.

Testing effect

Testing your knowledge of specific study material is not only an effective assessment of your current learning progress, but also significantly contributes to enhancing long-term retention and memorization. The implementation of self-testing in your study routine reveals noteworthy results. Research has shown that actively recalling information, rather than passive review or note-taking, engages cognitive processes that strengthen neural connections, eventuating a more durable memory trace over time (Rummer et al., 2017). As articulated by Roediger and Karpicke (2006), successfully retrieving an item from memory, while testing yourself, enhances the strength of its memory representation. In other words, the testing effect assumes that if individuals are examined on material and successfully recall it, their future retention of the material exceeds that of those who have not been tested. Even if the attempt to retrieve information is unsuccessful, engaging in retrieval practice has been proved to be advantageous (Kornell & Vaughn, 2016). Theories suggest that the testing effect derives from the extra effort and difficulty that is required for the active recall of a memory, compared to passive reading and note-taking. Whenever increased effort, or ‘retrieval strength’, is needed for the recall of  a certain memory, the ‘storage strength’ of that memory will also be increased (Bjork & Bjork 1992; Pyc & Rawson, 2009). Therefore testing yourself is a must if you want to prepare for that upcoming exam!

Spacing Effect

Another effective study strategy, that has been briefly introduced in one of our previous blog posts, is the application of the spacing effect. The spacing effect, initially outlined by Ebbinghaus (1885), refers to the advantageous impact on the retention of factual information when study sessions are spaced out over time. Consequently, the likelihood of remembering material studied in a spaced-out manner is greater compared to material learned in a massed approach (see figure 1). Studies have consistently demonstrated the advantages of studying with delayed repetition over massed repetition. For instance, Krug et al. (1990) observed inferior memorization outcomes among participants who read a 600-word text consecutively twice, in contrast to those who engaged in delayed revision of the same text spread over a week. This emphasizes the benefits of studying over several study sessions rather than cramming exam material at the very last moment. It is noteworthy that this spacing strategy can also be implemented within learning sessions. For example, when studying European capital cities, it would be more effective if you leave some time between repeating the fact that Budapest is the capital of Hungary, than asking yourself the same question consecutively.

Figure 1:  The comparison between the influence of spaced repetition and cramming on memory.

Note: Spaced repetition displays an advantageous effect on long-term retention.

Combining testing and spacing

While recognizing the effectiveness of self-testing and spacing, it is crucial to understand how you could optimally implement and integrate these methods into your learning practices. How could you best apply the previously discussed methods for an upcoming exam? An effective self-testing method, for example, involves flashcard learning. Flashcards can help you by engaging in active retrieval, and they are easy to make yourself; write a term or question on one side of a card and its corresponding definition on the other side. 

But how frequently and with what time intervals do you need to revise these concepts or terms? It is important to not wait too long with retesting a fact since you want to keep the concept active and avoid forgetting. However, the spacing effect, from a theoretical standpoint, emphasizes that it is essential to maximize the time intervals between repetitions of the material. Therefore, balancing frequent testing with appropriately spaced intervals is key for optimal efficacy. This might seem challenging, considering that the difficulty of material also plays a big role in how often you need to revise it. Avoid overconfidence in what material you master and try to make realistic decisions regarding which content requires additional practice or study. Such Judgments of Learning (JoL) can aid in prioritizing specific material that requires deeper focus, and ultimately improve your study outcomes (Schwartz et al., 2011). 

In addition to traditional methods like creating your own flashcards, resources like MemoryLab could be an effective alternative in your study routine, allowing you to benefit from the testing and spacing effects in a digital environment.

In conclusion, incorporating the testing effect and spacing effect into your study routine can significantly enhance long-term retention and memorization. The testing effect emphasizes the benefits of actively recalling information, leading to a more durable memory over time. Additionally, the spacing effect indicates the advantage of spaced-out study sessions in promoting better retention compared to massed approaches. To optimize these strategies for an upcoming exam, consider implementing methods like flashcard learning, while strategically balancing frequent testing with spaced intervals.

References

Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1992). A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation. In A. F. Healy, S. M. Kosslyn, & R. M. Shiffrin (Eds.), Essays in honor of William K. Estes, Vol. 1: From learning theory to connectionist theory; Vol. 2: From learning processes to cognitive processes. (pp. 35–67). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Ebbinghaus, H. (1885). Memory (translated by H. A. Ruger and C. E. Bussenius). New York, Teachers College, 1913. Paperback ed., New York, Dover, 1964.

Glover, J. A., & Corkill, A. J. (1987). Influence of paraphrased repetitions on the spacing effect. Journal of Educational Psychology, 79(2), 198–199. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.79.2.198

Kornell, N., & Vaughn, K. E. (2016). How retrieval attempts affect learning: A review and synthesis. In B. H. Ross (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation. (pp. 183–215). Elsevier Academic Press.

Krug, D., Davis, B., & Glover, J. A. (1990). Massed versus distributed repeated reading: A case of forgetting helping recall? Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 366 –371.

Pyc, M. A., & Rawson, K. A. (2009). Testing the retrieval effort hypothesis: Does greater difficulty correctly recalling information lead to higher levels of memory? Journal of Memory and Language, 60, 437– 447. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2009.01.004 

Roediger III, HL, & Karpicke, JD (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on psychological science, 1(3), 181-210

Rummer, R., Schweppe, J., Gerst, K., & Wagner, S. (2017). Is testing a more effective learning strategy than note taking?. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 23(3), 293.

Schwartz, B. L., Son, L. K., Kornell, N., & Finn, B. (2011). Four Principles of Memory Improvement: A Guide to Improving Learning Efficiency. The International Journal of Creativity & Problem Solving, 21(1), 7–15.

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