Space Repetition And Active Recall: What’s the Best Studying Technique?

Spaced repetition and active recall are two of the most prominent studying techniques out there. But which one is the best? 

Both techniques offer distinct advantages in optimizing learning and retention. Let’s dive in into each method’s characteristics, compare their applications, and understand the science behind their efficacy so you can choose which one may help you to study more effectively. 

Understanding Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is a learning technique centered around optimizing review intervals to enhance memory retention. The approach capitalizes on the psychological spacing effect, where information retention improves through systematic review at expanding intervals over time.

Spaced repetition’s origins trace back to the late 19th century when German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus pioneered memory research. In 1885, Ebbinghaus conducted groundbreaking studies on memory retention and forgetting curves. His work laid the foundation for understanding how spacing intervals between review sessions could significantly impact long-term memory retention. 

spaced repetition curve


Studies and research on spaced repetition consistently demonstrate its effectiveness in enhancing long-term memory retention. For instance, a study published in Psychological Science by Kornell and Bjork in 2008 showed that spaced repetition significantly improved retention compared to massed practice (cramming). 

Furthermore, research by Cepeda et al. in 2006 highlighted that spacing out learning sessions over time led to better retention of information. These findings support the notion that spaced repetition optimizes memory retention by reinforcing learning at intervals, allowing for better encoding and retrieval of information over the long term.

How to use spaced repetition to study effectively (with examples)

Using spaced repetition to study effectively for an exam is extremely simple. However, you might want to use an app to help you upload your studying material, add your own questions, send reminders, and monitor your progress.

Here are the steps to use spaced repetition

Step #1 – Prepare your studying material

Suppose you’re studying biology. Gather your biology textbook, lecture notes, online resources, and any additional materials recommended by your instructor. Organize these resources in a dedicated folder or digital platform.

Step #2 – Create your own questions/reminders

Let’s say you’re learning about cell structure. Create flashcards or questions like:

  • “What are the components of a cell membrane?”
  • “What are the functions of mitochondria?”
  • “What are the differences between plant and animal cells?”

Step #3 – Review them at increasing intervals

Start by reviewing these questions daily for a week. Then, if you answer a question correctly, set it to reappear in two days. If answered correctly again, set it to appear in four days, and so on, gradually increasing the intervals.

Step #4 – Monitor retention and adapt the study plan accordingly

After a week of using spaced repetition, assess your performance. If you’re consistently remembering certain topics well, increase the interval between reviews. For areas where you’re struggling, decrease the interval or add more related questions to reinforce understanding.

Is spaced repetition better then active recall? What the best technique?

Space repetition and active recall are two powerful techniques used in learning and memory retention, often employed together to enhance the efficiency of studying.

Active recall involves deliberately retrieving information from memory without the aid of cues or prompts. When you actively recall information, you’re essentially trying to remember something on your own. 

Space repetition, on the other hand, is a scheduling technique that involves reviewing and revisiting information at strategically spaced intervals over time. The idea is to review material at increasing intervals, with each successful recall indicating that the information is better encoded in memory. The intervals between reviews are determined based on the forgetting curve, allowing for more effective long-term retention.

The relationship between space repetition and active recall lies in their synergy. Space repetition leverages the principle that memory is strengthened through repeated exposure to information spaced out at optimal intervals. 

Active recall complements this by engaging the brain in the process of retrieving information actively, reinforcing the memory trace each time you successfully recall something.

When combined, these techniques create a potent learning strategy. Active recall forces the brain to retrieve information actively, strengthening memory, while space repetition schedules review in a way that maximizes retention by focusing more on the material that you find challenging or tend to forget.

In essence, active recall helps solidify memories through practice, and space repetition optimizes the timing of these practices for long-term retention, making the learning process more efficient and effective.

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