When it comes to long-term learning, you've probably heard that spread-out study is more effective than intense cramming sessions. Hopefully, you've even heard it from us, since consistent study is one of Fluencia's Spanish learning strategies. This idea probably feels intuitively true -- if you've ever waited until the last minute to cram for a test, then forgotten the information a week later, you know exactly what we're talking about. It turns out your intuition is right: science confirms that spaced repetition, or reviewing what you've learned at spaced-out intervals, can improve your retention by up to 200%. What's the special sauce that makes spaced repetition so powerful?
To talk about how spaced repetition works, you need to understand a few things about memory. Psychologists break memory down into three basic stages: encoding, storage, and retrieval. The first step, encoding, is how you translate the information you see and learn into a format that your brain can store. You can encode information visually, acoustically, or semantically, but it must be encoded. Storage involves how you aggregate and hold information in your short-term or long-term memory — how you keep the knowledge somewhere that you can access later. Finally, retrieval is how you recall information that has been encoded and stored. Sometime when you can't remember something — a word that's on the tip of your tongue, or the name of a colleague, for instance — you're having trouble retrieving information that you've stored. Theories about why spaced repetition works look mostly at the encoding and retrieval pieces of this sequence.
As psychologist and scientists investigated the mechanisms of spaced repetition, a few theories gained prominence. In the encoding variability hypothesis, spacing works because it gives you a chance to encode the same information in a new way. As opposed to massed (unspaced) repetition, in which only one act of encoding takes place, spacing the encounters offers you the opportunity to encode the information in a different way, filling in new associations or contexts. Another theory, the consolidation hypothesis, posits that there is a time period after you initially learn a topic during which you integrate and process the information in order to store it in your long-term memory. Interrupting this process with another repetition lengthens the consolidation window, allowing your brain to assimilate the memory more reliably. Yet another approach, the voluntary hypothesis, suggests that massed repetition fails in comparison to spaced repetition due to overhabituation. In essence, too much prolonged exposure is a drain on the learner's attention and cognitive resources, and so she reaches a point of diminishing returns in regards to time spent studying.
A final theory, the accessibility hypothesis, takes elements of the voluntary attention hypothesis but looks more closely at the retrieval aspect of memory. This philosophy suggests that the longer you wait to repeat a unit of information, the more difficult it is to retrieve it at the time of repetition, resulting in better retention. While no theory of how spaced repetition functions has proven completely perfect, the accessibility hypothesis has gained popularity as research into spaced repetition continues.
What does all this scientific jargon actually mean? There are a few takeaways to think about while studying Spanish. First of all, don't worry about trying to cram in as many review sessions as possible! It's okay — advisable, in fact — to give yourself time between learning something and reviewing it. If the accessibility hypothesis is true, the ideal time to repeat information is right before you completely forget it. This also means that reviewing will probably feel fairly difficult, and that's great! Struggling to retrieve the Spanish you learned a few weeks ago will actually help it stick in your long-term memory.
Interested in spaced repetition? Try out Fluencia's Smart Review and take the guesswork out of when you should repeat and review! And please don't forget to like, comment, and share!