If you are learning a new language or complex information like physics or mathematics, what can you do to remember what you have learned? What study methods help you reach your goals?
One method is called “spaced practice,” according to Mary Pyc, a specialist in cognitive science, which is the study of the mind and its processes.
If you are like many students, you might study quickly and try to memorize subject material just before a test. That’s called cramming. You might feel like you have memorized the new words or terms, but when it comes time to use them on a test, you cannot remember them.
Instead of practicing only once, learners should practice several times a week.
“You don’t want to do all of your studying in one learning session. You want to space it across time,” she says.
Flashcards are a good tool, she says. On one side of the card, write the word in English; on the other side, write the word in the student’s native language.
“So, maybe three days a week you come back to this deck of flashcards, and you go until you get items correct,” she says.
As you add more cards, you will build memory muscle.
“How thick is your deck of flashcards?” Pyc asks. “The bigger the deck of flashcards you have, the better that is for long-term memory.”
If you do not like having large decks of flashcards, create tests or quizzes using your electronic devices, and follow your progress over time.
What is interleaving?
Another helpful study method is interleaving.
Interleaving mixes study methods during a practice session. Your brain is pushed to practice changing between different operations.
Language learners may study different vocabulary words mixed together in a large deck of flashcards. The brain must remember different meanings of each word.
Or students studying math may practice addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division problems mixed together.
The important point, Pyc explains, is that students begin to discriminate between different kinds of problems.
This strategy is much more useful than having exercises only for addition problems or only for subtraction problems, for example.
The strategy of practicing only one subject is called “blocked” practice. It is commonly used in schools, although Pyc says that it is not as effective as spaced, or interleaved practice.
Do not become discouraged
These learning strategies take more time. This learning may take more time and be more difficult, but long-term retention is far greater. In other words, you will be able to remember what you learned for far longer, says Pyc and her colleague, Henry Roediger III, who wrote about this topic for the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition.
In the report, they write that some of the best types of learning take place slowly at first. The value of regular practice may not be apparent for some time, but the long-term benefits are great!