How to use ‘spacing’ to learn and recall anything

By Veronica Merry.

I remember it like it was yesterday. It was my first exam for my MBA and I had 2 weeks left to study, and 60 pages of notes to memorise. I tried to keep a clear head but I was in full-fledged panic mode. I used all the tricks I knew to memorise what I could. Mnemonics, mind maps, using songs and stories etc. However, in that amount of time there was no way I could fully memorise everything that was being tested. Luckily the structure of the exam allowed me to pick only 5 exam questions out of a possible 10 and I had covered enough to do ok. But as I walked out of that exam, I made myself a promise to never put myself under that sort of stress again.
And then I found out about the technique of ‘spacing’ which was a game changer.

Spacing is a method of learning which involves absorbing succinct amounts of information, testing your understanding, and allowing sufficient time to encode the new information between testing sessions. While spacing is not a new concept, recent neuroscience research has uncovered that this technique allows the brain to wire new connections much more efficiently and therefore drastically improve long-term memory retention. The spacing principle also leads to higher retrieval rates of new information over the long term through repetition and deepened understanding of concepts. This really appealed to me because after all, I was studying my MBA to actually remember and apply new knowledge and skills to enhance my career.
So, in my very next semester, I started using the spacing technique. Every week I would summarise the key information and limit my notes to 1 page. I would complete the test sheets provided, or if there were none, create 10 questions to test myself on and complete those. I did this work at the same time each week and kept to the schedule I had created.


Each week, I repeated this process and made sure I also tested myself on the previous weeks’ information as well. Although due to competing priorities I had to skip a couple of weeks, I made sure I caught up as soon as possible and kept going.
Before I knew it, it was 2 weeks before exam block again- and this time I had 2 exams to study for! And even though I still felt that twinge of panic, it was much less stressful than the previous semester. As I tested myself, I was surprised by how much more I had remembered than the previous semester. For a start, rather than 60 pages of notes, I only had 12 pages per subject. My confidence grew as I continued to improve my practice test results over those 2 weeks. When I walked into the exam room I felt calm and centred due the fact that I really knew my subject which boosted exam performance. When I got excellent results back, it proved to me just how effective this method is and I hope it does the same for you. Happy spacing!

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Veronica Merry (MerryCoach) is passionate about helping people and organisations learn, adapt and evolve to achieve their vision. Veronica has over 17 years’ experience in designing and delivering learning programs across a broad range of disciplines including organisation development, change management, leadership and performance development, mentoring and coaching.  Contact Veronica to help you design and deliver your next organisational development program.


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