study You may think you know your own mind, but
when it comes to memory, research suggests
that you don’t. If we’re trying to learn
something, many of us study in ways that
prevent the memories sticking. Fortunately, the
same research also reveals how we can
supercharge our learning.
We’ve all had to face a tough exam at least
once in our lives. Whether it’s a school paper,
university final or even a test at work, there’s
one piece of advice we’re almost always given:
make a study plan. With a plan, we can space
out our preparation for the test rather than
relying on one or two intense study sessions the
night before to see us through.
It’s good advice. Summed up in three words:
cramming doesn’t work. Unfortunately, many of
us ignore this rule. At least one survey has
found that 99% of students admit to cramming .
You might think that’s down to nothing more
than simple disorganisation: I’ll admit it is far
easier to leave things to the last minute than
start preparing for a test weeks or months
ahead. But studies of memory suggest there’s
something else going on. In 2009, for example,
Nate Kornell at the University of California, Los
Angeles, found that spacing out learning was
more effective than cramming for 90% of the
participants who took part in one of his
experiments – and yet 72% of the participants
thought that cramming had been more
beneficial. What is happening in the brain that
we trick ourselves this way?
Studies of memory suggest that we have a
worrying tendency to rely on our familiarity with
study items to guide our judgements of whether
we know them. The problem is that familiarity is
bad at predicting whether we can recall
Familiar, not remembered
After six hours of looking at study material (and
three cups of coffee and five chocolate bars)
it’s easy to think we have it committed to
memory. Every page, every important fact,
evokes a comforting feeling of familiarity. The
cramming has left a lingering glow of activity in
our sensory and memory systems, a glow that
allows our brain to swiftly tag our study notes
as “something that I’ve seen before”. But being
able to recognise something isn’t the same as
being able to recall it .
Different parts of the brain support different
kinds of memory. Recognition is strongly
affected by the ease with which information
passes through the sensory areas of our brain,
such as the visual cortex if you are looking at
notes. Recall is supported by a network of
different areas of the brain, including the frontal
cortex and the temporal lobe, which coordinate
to recreate a memory from the clues you give it.
Just because your visual cortex is fluently
processing your notes after five consecutive
hours of you looking at them, doesn’t mean the
rest of your brain is going to be able to
reconstruct the memory of them when you really
need it to.
This ability to make judgements about our own
minds is called metacognition . Studying it has
identified other misconceptions too. For
instance, many of us think that actively thinking
about trying to learn something will help us
remember it. Studies suggest this is not the
case. Far more important is reorganising the
information so that it has a structure more
likely to be retained in your memory. In other
words, rewrite the content of what you want to
learn in a way that makes most sense to you.
Knowing about common metacognitive errors
means you can help yourself by assuming that
you will make them. You can then try and
counteract them. So, the advice to space out
our study only makes sense if we assume that
people aren’t already spacing out their study
sessions enough (a safe assumption, given the
research findings). We need to be reminded of
the benefits of spaced learning because it runs
counter to our instinct to relying on a
comforting feeling of familiarity when deciding
how to study
Put simply, we can sometimes have a surprising
amount to gain from going against our normally
reliable metacognitive instinct. How much
should you space out your practice? Answer: a
little bit more than you really want to.