By Anya Bovilsky
Are you in need of reevaluating your study habits and ready to get better test scores? When I was in high school, I was constantly looking for new ways to study. I used cramming and waiting until the last minute, only focusing on one thing at a time, with and without music or background noise. For me, especially for definitions like in Spanish class or Anatomy, using flashcards and reviewing them over and over again was the best way for me to remember the material for the test and to help remember more for the final at the end of the semester. I had a teacher in my senior level Anatomy class that was convinced repetition every day would help us learn the material, so when we were learning all of the bones in the body, we would go over a different section every single day to help the information encoded into our brains better. I brought that with me to college and it has helped me maintain good grades.
Research has shown that studying in a spaced setting, rather than a lumped amount, improves memory recall and encodes information better. “When an item is studied repeatedly without interruption, learning is massed. Alternatively, when repetitions are separated by intervening items or time, learning is spaced (3).” Many studies have found that a little studying each day or in between a good night of sleep (1) can improve how much is retained in overall material. Spending a little time each day leading up to a quiz or exam could improve the score you receive, rather than cramming at the last minute. Doing this throughout the semester would be way more helpful when it comes time to study for the final. Using flashcards, no matter how old you are, can help you remember the information better for the test as well as for a longer period of time. This means putting a little bit more effort into writing out the note cards, but it is worth it if the result is passing a tough class.There have been hundreds of research studies conducted about this way of studying and it is rarely implemented. So, let’s start using this method in order to pass our classes and finish college strong!
We all know that many college students cram studying into the hours before a test, trying to remember as much as they can on little sleep and a lot (in my case, way too much) of coffee. However, studies have shown that taking a break to sleep between study sessions not only helps improve recall of the information but for a longer period of time (1) (no more forgetting what you learned as soon as the exam is finished). Sleeping allowed for participants in this study to take a break from the information but also for their brains to process the information and turn it into a long term memory while they slept. These college students were trying to learn 20 words in a different language in only 24 hours. The research group was given their word pairs, learned them in the initial session, restudied them 12 hours later and then were retested after 12 hours overnight where they were instructed to sleep. Long term testing, ten days after the initial study, showed that those in this research group had the best recall compared to those who did not sleep between sessions. This study recommends that students sleep between studying and space studying out to at least two days (more days for more material) for better recall outcomes lasting longer. What college student doesn’t want to sleep in order to get better grades? Bring it on!
This method was practiced on several middle school classrooms to determine if spacing would benefit students learning difficult vocabulary words. They chose more advanced words for fourth graders (2) for research. Results found that when the students learned over a period of time, they understood the meanings of the words better, for longer. They incorporated a few new words each session into the definitions they already knew. They had a total of eight sessions and concluded that these students remembered a significantly higher amount of words than the students who learned all of the words together. Another classroom did a similar experiment (4) and these students recalled about three times the amount of definitions than the students who had all of the definitions at once. If this can work on children in middle school, why can’t it work for college students? Plus, we need it way more than they do.
Flashcards, like the children in this class used, can be implemented for college level learning and, when used over time, can improve retention of material. Students often believe that studying all of the material one time before being tested is the best approach, especially when there are more fun things to do like going out for fast food or going to that party on Saturday night. However using flashcards and reviewing the material several times before being tested is the most effective and results in the best test scores (5). Have a friend quiz you on your flash cards while you put on your makeup and get ready for that party, or have a passenger in the car quiz you on the way to Taco Bell. That way you get your studying done and still have fun, the best of both worlds. Also, like many teachers and professors say, writing down the information onto the cards can be an added way of studying, so really it is killing two birds with one stone.
(1) Bell, M. C., Kawadri, N., Simone, P. M., & Wiseheart, M. (2014). Long-term memory, sleep, and the spacing effect. Memory 2014, 22(3), 276-283. doi:10.1080/09658211.2013.778294
(2) Swehla, S. E., Burns, M. K., Zaslofsky, A. F., Hall, M. S., Varma, S., & Volpe, R. J. (2016). Examining The Use Of Spacing Effect To Increase The Efficiency Of Incremental Rehearsal. Psychology in the Schools, 53(4), 404-415. doi:10.1002/pits.21909
(3) Walsh, M. M., Gluck, K. A., Gunzelmann, G., Jastrzembski, T., Krusmark, M., Myung, J. I., . . . Zhou, R. (2018). Mechanisms underlying the spacing effect in learning: A comparison of three computational models. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(9), 1325-1348. doi:10.1037/xge0000416
(4) Sobel, H. S., Cepeda, N. J., & Kapler, I. V. (2010). Spacing effects in real-world classroom vocabulary learning. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(5), 763-767. doi:10.1002/acp.1747
(5) Kornell, N. (2009). Optimising learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23(9), 1297-1317. doi:10.1002/acp.1537