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Study better: Space it out and mix it up

How to learn more without studying more.

Education isn't all about classrooms. Homework plays a huge role in student learning. Given how much time we spend studying in a lifetime, and how hard it is to find time to study, techniques that make studying more efficient--that is, techniques that allow you to learn more in the same amount of time--can be incredibly valuable.

One of the most important study techniques that you don't know about is this: Space your studying.

What does that mean? If you are going to study something two times (or more), try to let as much time pass as possible between the first and second time you study.

For example, don't read your textbook chapter and then review it on the same day. Study it and then review it on a different day, and allow as much time to pass between the two study sessions as possible. Better yet, spread your studying across numerous days. You don't necessarily have to study more, you just have to distribute your study time differently. When you sit down to study, mix up your topics--instead of studying one topic per day, study every topic a little bit every day.

The science behind spacing

Research on the spacing effect began with the pioneering work of Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. Ben Carey recently wrote about the benefits of spacing in the New York Times. Here is more information on three studies that demonstrate the benefits of spacing out study trials and mixing up topics.

Flashcards. Study guides often recommend that student study vocabulary using small stacks of flashcards. But a recent study showed that it's much more effective to study a large stacks of flashcards every day. Why? Because the more cards you have in your stack, the more time passes before you go through the stack and return to a card you've studied before--that is, larger stacks create more spacing.

Math and Science. Math and science textbooks are usually organized one topic at a time. You do fractions, then you do decimals. Again, this may be the worst possible way of organizing learning. A study of geometry learning showed that people learn best when different topics are mixed together. Mixing problems means that you end up reviewing information you've studied before after a spaced interval. It also means that you can't necessarily solve the next problem the same way you solved the last one--you have to figure out how to approach each problem. The bottom line is that problems sets don't usually include a mix of topics, but they probably should.

Paintings. What about learning something more conceptual? In a study about art and cognition, participants were asked to learn the styles of various different painters. Participants studied 6 paintings per artist, and all of the paintings were different. The paintings were presented either one artist at a time or all mixed up, skipping back and forth between artists.

We thought presenting one artist at a time would highlight the crucial elements that defined an artist's style, even if not at a conscious level (e.g., artist A favors broad brush strokes, etc.) Thus, we predicted spacing would impair learning.

My research team had a combined 50 years experience studying the spacing effect. We should have known better, because our prediction couldn't have been more wrong. Spacing helped enormously.

You would think that there must be limitations to the value of spacing. If there are, they are hard to find.

Your intuition can deceive you, don't trust it

Spacing gives you time to forget. This forgetting is a good thing; forgetting is the friend of learning. But forgetting can make you feel like you are not learning. On the other hand, re-studying something right away makes it seem easy to remember. Unfortunately, this makes people feel that spacing hinders learning.

The participants in the flashcard experiment thought they learned most when they studied a small stack of flashcards all on one day. They were dead wrong, of course. The same thing happened in the painting study--most participants thought studying one artist at a time produced the most learning. Wrong again.

Your intuition will tell you that spacing is a terrible idea. And your intuition will be wrong. Don't trust it. Trust the scientific evidence.


What is the most popular study techniques on college campuses? Probably cramming before an exam.

Studying right before an exam is always a good idea. But cramming--that is, ONLY studying right before an exam--is never a good idea. Of course, cramming is probably the single most popular study technique in history.

Research has shown over and over that you'll quickly forget information that you cram, so it won't help you in the long term. And it won't help you nearly as much on the test as spaced studying would.

Bottom line: Space your studying and you'll not only do better on your test - you'll also remember the information you studied for a lot longer.

Follow me on Twitter @natekornell.

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