I’m currently working on several different projects right now ranging from working on a piece of music, teaching algorithms and data structures, working on my AWS Solutions Architect Certificate, and getting back into running shape. Although the projects are different, they are all forcing me to learn the material at a deep level of mastery. I don’t do things half-ass. So far, I’ve not been as effective as I would like to be; I’m not accomplishing the mini-goals that I’ve set. The main reason? It’s simply taking me longer to learn and understand any new material. Chalk it up to age, laziness, or lack of discipline. But upon further reflection, I blame my learning approach. I’m forgetting material because I don’t review the basics on a daily basis. Instead of a slow and steady approach to learning, I’m doing the cram-as-much-as-you-can-the-night-before-the-final approach to learning. Big mistake.

I recently read an excellent article about how to remember new concepts that you’ve learned. The article is called The Spacing Effect: How to Improve Learning and Maximize Retention. The article states that shorter but daily learning sessions are much more efficient and effective in learning and retaining new ideas and concepts. From the article:

With properly spaced repetition, you increase the intervals of time between learning attempts. Each learning attempt reinforces the neural connections. For example, we learn a list better if we repeatedly study it over a period of time than if we tackle it in one single burst. We’re actually more efficient this way. Spaced sessions allow us to invest less total time to memorize than one single session, whereas we might get bored while going over the same material again and again in a single session.

I believe in this spaced repetition method of learning. I’ve experienced it in Catholic school when my fourth grade teacher drilled multiplication tables in our heads by having us recite and the multiplication tables everyday. And I’ve seen it work in my Python programming projects. The more I use the same functions or syntax, the better I remember it. Recently, I did a technical interview on a whiteboard and I was quickly writing code because writing in Python became almost second nature! Yes, spaced repetition is nothing new. Everyone knows that slow and steady wins the race. But it is much harder to do in practice. Spaced repetition requires discipline and a tolerance for the boring (because you have to do the same thing over and over again). But the article provides some helpful tips on how to actually do spaced repetition:

  • Set a schedule for daily review of the material you are learning
  • Store the information you are learning on something such as flashcards, notebooks, or computers
  • Track your progress with metrics or a daily journal
  • Set a duration for your reviews; have a set start and end time; don’t let review sessions drag too long or you will lose motivation

If you have 12 minutes to spare for reading (and if you care about learning how to learning), the time investment is worth it.