Memory’s the Test When Students Are Studying

    Thus is the story of my last eight quarters. But this week I combined my two hobbies (procrastination, and guilt over procrastination) into a more useful endeavor: While I’m not actually studying, I’m reading up on how I can study better (in the future).
    The good news: The most effective way to learn is to play a game of strategic procrastination. An entire industry of flash card programs  has grown around the idea of “spaced repetition,” which states that the best way to remember anything is to relearn it just when you’ve almost forgotten the concept.
    The theory comes from Hermann Ebbinghaus, who studied the time it took students to consistently remember nonsense syllables. There are two types of long-term memory involved here: retrieval and storage. Retrieval is how quickly we can remember the Russian word for “milk,” while storage denotes how long “??????” will stay in our memories, even if we can’t pull up the word right away. Spaced repetition works on both: By reminding ourselves of concepts when we’re about to lose them, we simultaneously pull the idea up from the depths (recall) and root them more deeply (strength).
    The harder we struggle to understand the material, the longer the material will stick — this is why memory researchers recommend taking notes after class instead of during. The latter turns the student into a scribe, while the former forces her to actively think about the lecture. Similarly, the best way to prepare is to stop studying and quiz yourself; this removes the danger of confusing familiarity with understanding.
    Other illuminations, from Robert Bjork of the UCLA Learning and Forgetting Lab: Studying in different environments improves retention, and interweaving different, but related, skills while practicing is more effective than learning skills in blocks. Practicing short division, then long division, then short division in a short span will “set” the skills in the brain more definitively than practicing them separately for longer periods.
    But at the end of the day, there was one major area in which science let me down. All the studies say that cramming, while effective in the short term, hurts retention in the long run. Reading about memory studies will not actually negate my upcoming cram session. Instead, I am more doomed than ever for the looming tests, but more prepared for Spring Quarter — when my newfound knowledge and discipline will kick in and save me.

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