How I Use Spaced Repetition To Get Top Grades in Exams
Spacing out your studying and repeating and going over topics is one of the best ways to remember information but spaced repetition can seem quite confusing and it's difficult to find practical advice on how to space out what you are studying and what the best spacing intervals to use are?
Now many people don't quite understand what Spaced Repetition is and it's often overcomplicated on websites and YouTube videos meaning that people feel overwhelmed and just don't use it. There also isn't a huge amount of practical advice for actually implementing spacing which means people sometimes miss out on incorporating this powerful evidence-based learning technique which is actually really simple and super easy when you know how. So in today's video I'm going to cover some practical ways you can get started using the principles behind spaced repetition and look at how I used it when studying for medical and surgical exams which helped me come 1st in my exams. I'm going to break this video down into: the principles behind spacing and why it's actually super easy, the problems people run into when trying to apply these techniques and then I'll cover how I practically used spacing when studying for exams which I'll break into Plan, Regular Reviews and Exam Revision. I'll then give you some quick tools you can use to automate some of your spacing at the end as a bonus. So do hit subscribe if you're not already a subscriber and let's get into it starting with a quick summary of the principles of spaced repetition.
The Principles of Spacing
Spaced repetition is an evidence-based study technique that is heavily backed up by science. In a nutshell spacing is just coming back to information and re-testing yourself on what you have learned after a set interval of time. It's application goes all the way back to the 1880s when German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a series of experiments into learning retention and discovered that our brains naturally forget things if we don't go back and review that information at set intervals. His experiments, which involved him memorizing things, produced what is known as the forgetting curve which shows the gradual decline of information in our brains over time if we don't review and retest this information. Our brains are pretty good at trying to filter out unnecessary information and if we're not regularly using that information our brains will just filter it out and forget it to be efficient. The forgetting curve is exponential because memory loss is rapid and enormous within the first few days of learning, in fact we forget over 50% of the information we learned within an hour of learning it and over 70% of it is gone within 24hours. But from then on the rate of memory loss decreases and the rate of forgetting is much slower. We've all learned a topic and then a few days or weeks later you just can't remember it as well which is super frustrating.
To summarise Ebbinghaus' findings the rate at which we forget information is impacted by:
- Meaningfulness or relevance of the information
- The way the information is represented
- Physiological actors (stress, sleep, etc)
Now the good news is that Ebbinghaus found that the forgetting curve could be interrupted and our memories could be strengthened through two key methods:
- Better memory representation (e.g. with mnemonic techniques)
- Repetition based on active recall (esp. spaced repetition)
For instance, taking time to repeat information every day during exams decreases the effects of the forgetting curve. According to the research, information should be repeated within the first 24 hours of learning to reduce the rate of memory loss.
So that's all great and I've got a deeper dive into the science behind spaced repetition for those who want it but here comes the problem that everyone who tries out space repetition encounters.
The Problem With Spacing
So we know that we need to space out our studying but when you get started it just seems way too overwhelming to apply spaced repetition for everything that you need to study for your exams. For something like medical finals where you need to learn a huge amount of information, having to repeat every topic four or five times while also attending lectures plus balancing work and life feels overwhelming and it just isn't efficient. Even getting started is way too hard with minimal information on the best spacing intervals to use or how to plan out study sessions. This difficulty getting started and the feeling of it being too much work puts lots of people off and when I first started the potential excessive workload just kind of didn't make sense and demotivated me from actually using it. When I was studying for my postgraduate surgical exams around my day job I was really looking for the most effective and efficient ways to study possible and didn't want to spend hours after work in the library working through a crazy study schedule with lots of information being repeated. Luckily as with all learning I focused on the principles of spacing which we've just covered rather than just trying to implement a strict spacing schedule which ius what 99% of people try and do after googling "best spacing intervals". So let's look at the way that I applied spacing that helped me to retain information for longer while also allowing it to feel manageable and keep me efficient while studying.
Plan, Regular Reviews, Revision (PR3)
So spaced repetition is actually really, really simple if you understand the basics. The goal of the framework that I used for spacing followed Ebbinghaus' principles for counteracting the forgetting curve. I wanted something that ensured the information I was repeating was relevant to me and what I was studying, I wanted to ensure whatever I was studying was well-represented and organised and I also wanted to make sure I had a good work-life balance and was well-rested and not stressed, all so I could be more effective and efficient with remembering what I was learning. To help me remember I called it PR3 which stands for:
Plan your spacing and recall sessions during term time and then in the run up to exams to ensure things are relevant. Regularly review the information that you are learning as you go along to ensure it is well-represented and organised. And finally revise the content you are learning in the run up to the final exams in a way that optimises for time and naturally spaces out what you are learning. So let's look at each of those steps starting with planning.
So to keep things relevant and to ensure that you have a good work-life balance and aren't sleep-deprived or stressed planning is probably the most important phase. This is really about deciding on the simplest and easiest way to incorporate spacing into you regular studying schedule and also mapping out a study schedule as you get closer to your exams. If you plan things out and are organised and it should then just be a matter of following the process in the next two steps.
The first things that I do is to look at what the most important principles and topics are for the things that I'm studying and optimise to apply spacing to these high-yield, commonly tested areas of the syllabus rather than just adding every single thing on every single lecture to a spacing schedule. In Ebbinghaus' experiments he found that the forgetting curve wasn't the same for everyone and things like how well we already understand a topic also impact how quickly we'll forget it. So in addition to planning to focus on the high yield topics for a subject I would also look at which of those high yield topics I understood the least and would flag these up. In terms of how I practically identified the high-yield topics and self-assesed to identify my knowledge gaps I would typically grab some past papers and the course syllabus at the start of a term or for surgical exams when I signed up to the exam. I would then quickly go through these and note down what topics were commonly tested and which I had absolutely no idea about and I'd usually block out time over 1-2 days to plan this out. This helps optimise for relevance and it is also helpful to make sure you are using the best studying resources like textbooks, question banks and mnemonics in the the planning phase which helps take care of how your learning is represented. Even just spending time organising your lecture notes so you know where to go for information will help keep you efficient and make studying easy to get into.
I would use a google sheet or excel doc with the exam syllabus and topics in one column and I'd then colour in red the topics I struggled with and then knew to prioritise these. I've put a link in the description to an exams spacing schedule for any exam which you can adapt and I'll go through how to manage your time and plan a revision timetable around the topics that are high yield and which you are weakest at in more detail in the next video so be sure to hit subscribe to get notified.
By focusing on the most commonly tested topics and the proportion of these that you are weakest at you're following the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule whereby 80% of your results will come from 20% of the syllabus.
In terms of then structuring this I had a short-term weekly and daily spacing routine and a longer-term exam revision timetable which I planned out and which I could stick to around my schedule. I integrated this into my calendar so that spacing became part of my routine and helped me form a habit. Rather than thinking of it as a complicated topic with set spacing intervals I basically optimised for the fact that most forgetting occurs in the first 24hours of learning something and then planned longer spacing intervals to be part of the review stage as the exam got closer. So let's look at how I used spacing to attack that exponential part of the forgetting curve in the first few days after learning something.
So the next part of the PR3 framework is to incorporate regular reviews into your daily and weekly study routine where you go back over topics you have learned in the last 24hrs or 7 days and do some quick active recall questions and blast through the topic to identify anything that isn't sticking on first and second reviews. Again don't overcomplicate this by worrying what the "best" specing schedule is just appreciate from the research that most forgetting exponentially happens in the first 24hours and 7 days.
So what does this look like in practical terms? Well for me I as you may have seen from my other videos I will create active recall questions when learning new content and taking notes. Now whether you are actively testing yourself from your own questions, from question banks, from flashcards or just closing your book and trying to recall answers in your mind the simplest way to effectively apply spacing is to review what you have learned at the end of a study session and at the end of each day or on the morning of the following day and then doing a longer review at the end of a week. I would incorporate these spaced reviews at the end of day 0 (so the same day I had learned something) or on the morning of day 1 to make this my first spacing review session. I would block out this time in my calendar and do it at a set time everyday to help make it easy and to form a habit. I wouldn't spend ages on these reviews, depending on what I was studying maybe an hour or so depending on how well I knew a topic and would again focus down on the things I knew I was weakest at. In fact there is evidence that just quickly reviewing what you have learned in a short study session helps to combat the forgetting curve so I'd try and get into the habit of quickly blasting back over questions or topics even if I'd just been studying them for an hour or so. Remember the principles of spacing are that if you leave a bit of time after learning something and then need to think harder to recall it, it strengthens your ability to recall the information and so even these mini-reviews after a short lunch-break can help to build up your ability to remember what you're learning.
If you're really struggling for time you can even try and recall what you learned the day before in the shower in the morning or on your walk or way into work. If you're heads down studying, day 0, day 1 and end of week reviews mean you don't need to worry too much about specific spacing intervals and can just pick up topics you have learned over the last 7 days. The final point here is around time management and using active recall. Ebbinghaus recommended using active recall and memory aides like mnemonics and remember you don't need to remember everything perfectly on your first review so just try and get through the self-testing review sessions rather than spending ages. For me I already applied active recall during term time when making notes and learning new content so it was just a matter of adding in these review timeslots around my active recall practise which massively improved my learning. If you are studying for longer periods of time and have a ton of information like in medical finals it's also helpful to block out a single day at the beginning or end of each month to then whizz back through what you learned in the last month retrospectively and use this as your third spacing interval such that you end up with intervals at day 0 or day 1, day 5 or 7 and then day 21 or 30 to increase the spacing intervals as recommended by Ebbinghaus since our forgetting becomes less exponential after the first week don't worry about the exact days focus down on making it fit around your life and calendar and make spacing reviews into a habit.
Block regular reviews out in your calendar, do them at the same time and get into the habit of doing mini-reviews between study sessions as a super easy way to apply spacing right away.
The last part of the PR3 framework is then when exam time is coming around and you are no longer trying to absorb new content and have been through everything at least once or twice. This is typically where I would be self-testing from question banks, past papers and my own created questions using active recall in he run-up to exams. At the start of this period I would jump back to planing and just to a quick self-assessment to see which topics I felt I knew the least and challenge myself to tackle these first. For surgical and medical exams this time period was usually the final 2-3 months before an exam but it depends on what the exam is and for smaller exams I'd probably just spend a few focused weeks of efficient testing.
In the revision period you can also hack things further and be even more efficient by using online tools that have a built-in spacing algorithm in addition to your spacing study schedule. Tools like Anki flashcards will flag up questions at set intervals based on how well you know them and using existing question sets for the exam you are revising can help keep you focused on getting through the flashcards while Anki takes care of the spacing. Some question banks like Shiken also do this with active recall questions which realistically resemble past papers and exam questions. In Shiken the lightbulbs represent your spacing and mastery of the question and once you have hit 5 lightbulbs you know you have mastered that question and it’s removed from circulation. The advantage of both of these is that you can be laser focused on doing questions and completing them all while the algorithm looks after spacing.
For this period I would use my spaced exam schedule in google docs which I'd created during the plan stage. When doing my self-assessment I'd colour the key topics and plan out when I was going to review the topics during this concentrated revision period focusing down on the high-yield topics which I knew the least. I would set myself a goal of doing as many questions as possible within study sessions as for me this was the most efficient way to learn. Importantly I would also factor in time to chill out, go to the gym and take breaks so that as I was testing I wouldn't burn-out and I had enough sleep to remember things effectively.
In the revision period my weekly schedule would look similar to in term time where I would go through topics doing active recall questions and then reviewing these at set intervals. Remember there is no perfect spacing interval as it depends on how long you want to be able to recall information for and I have more information on this in my deeper dive into spacing but the most important thing is to review and go back over everything you have prioritised in the revision stage while also looking after yourself.
So to summarise spacing doesn't need to be difficult and if you understand the key principles outlined by Ebbinghaus namely that information should be relevant, organised and studied using active recall and reviewed at intervals while optimising for sleep and reducing stress you'll do really well. The framework I use aligns to this by planning and optimising for the most relevant topics which you know the least well and then structuring in regular reviews during your day, week and month where you retrospectively go back over topics at natural intervals and then go back over everything in a focused revision period which again focuses on topics you know the least well.