The Spacing Effect

There is one word that college students know better than anyone else. It has nothing to do with fraternities or dorm rooms or beer pong. It’s cramming. Staying up until the early hours of the morning, cramming as much information as you can into your memory so you can recall it the next day for a big exam. This is the exact opposite of the Spacing Effect.

What Is The Spacing Effect? 

The Spacing Effect is the idea that when you commit to learning information over a long period of time, you are more likely to retain more of that information. A spaced presentation is more effective for learning than a massed presentation.

Example of the Spacing Effect

Cramming is definitely an example of a massed presentation. You put a large mass of information in front of you and try to memorize it in a short period of time. The Spacing Effect says that if you commit to learning that information by spacing out your study time over a period of weeks, your studying will be more effective.

a woman stressed out over cramming

This graphic on Reddit shows how the Spacing Effect differs from cramming, and suggests that it leads to better test scores than one massive cramming. 

There are many college students that claim that cramming works for them. They procrastinate because they believe they can. All of their study time is reserved for the night (or even mere hours) before a test. 

But science says that this doesn’t exactly work. When you look at the Spacing Effect, it becomes clear that cramming won’t set you up for success, especially if you want to retain the information past the hours when you’re in the exam room. 

As much as college students love to cram information before a test, the Spacing Effect makes a lot of sense. Here are a few reasons why. 

Why Does The Spacing Effect Work? 

The two main reasons that cause the spacing effect seem to be related to how we store memories. Remembering information, after all, is simply storing and retrieving it in long-term memory.

diagram of memory processing, from sensory input to long-term memory

Our Short-Term Memory Storage Is Limited 

Our long-term memory storage can hold an infinite amount of memories: we can recall things from 5, 10, or 20 years ago. But short-term memory is a little different. We can only hold a handful of pieces of information at a time. When we try and cram more information than our short-term memory can handle, something’s gotta give. 

To pass information from short term to long term memory, we must find a reason to do so. That reason can be an emotional attachment or a useful fact. 

Multiple Presentations Require Recall

When we cram, the information is always fresh in our minds. It’s easy to recall the information when we quiz ourselves because we just learned it. But moving information from short-term memory to long-term memory requires time. 

Spaced presentation means that you have to bring your focus back to the information multiple times. You have to recall the information that you previously learned, repeat that information (and similar, relevant information,) and take a second look at it. This repetition and renewed focus play a big role in the effectiveness of the Spacing Effect. 

The Information Becomes More Significant 

Studying information multiple times also gives your brain more ways to recall the information. The information you learn in the library may be forgotten in the exam room. But the information you learn in the library, with friends in your dorm, with a tutor in the student center, etc. offers more ways for you to contextualize the information and more chances for different stimuli to encourage recall. 

Who Invented the Spacing Effect? 

The man behind the Spacing Effect is none other than Hermann Ebbinghaus. This German psychologist is the man behind some of the most basic phenomena in the world of learning and memory. 

ebbinghaus forgetting curve

His forgetting curves and work with memorization help to prove the spacing effect. Our ability to remember new information drops off significantly within 60 minutes, but then plateaus over the next few days. If you’re cramming information into an hour of studying, you’re likely to forget a lot of that information quickly. But Ebbinghaus’s work shows that if you continue to revisit and study information multiple times, the forgetting curve will plateau and you will consistently remember the information that you have revisited. 

You’ve probably heard of Ebbinghaus before. If not, I recommend that you check out my pages on the Serial Position Effect and short-term memory! 

Practical Psychology

Practical Psychology began as a collection of study material for psychology students in 2016, created by a student in the field. It has since evolved into an online blog and YouTube channel providing mental health advice, tools, and academic support to individuals from all backgrounds. With over 2 million YouTube subscribers, over 500 articles, and an annual reach of almost 12 million students, it has become one of the most popular sources of psychological information.

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