Do you ever think about how little you actually remember from school, regardless how much you may have studied and how well you may have done? I know I certainly can’t recite the periodic table of elements or Lady Macbeth’s famous monologue like I used to. So what’s the deal? Well, let’s back up a few years to when we actually did the studying. Surely we’re all familiar with the stereotypical procrastinator who can’t seem to buckle down and study for a big test until the last possible second. Wouldn’t it make sense to study the material right before the test, so that it’s fresh in your memory?
Well, as is often the case in cognitive psychology, and as our friends over at Cognitive Daily and We’re Only Human have blogged about in the past, the results are mixed. One well-known study by Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted, and Rohrer (2006) found that students who studied new vocabulary for a total of ten trials performed better on a quiz than those who only studied for five trials, and this advantage held up when they were re-quizzed one week later. This makes sense – the more you study, the better you do, right? Well, here’s where it gets tricky. When the students were re-quizzed again after three weeks, this advantage disappeared. This led the researchers to delve further into the question of the study break. Did these students simply wait too long between studying and taking the quiz? Cepeda et al. (2006) repeated the study but this time introduced study breaks between study sessions, from as little as 5 minutes up to a whole month. What they found was that, in general, the longer you want to retain the knowledge, the longer your study break should be. For instance, students who took a one-day break did the best when tested after ten days, whereas those who took a whole month did best after six months. Thus, it appears that cramming all our studying into one session actually diminishes long-term learning.
At this point, some of you are probably thinking, so what? If the big test is tomorrow and you only need the information for that test, then what’s the harm in studying your butt off the night before? Well, in some cases, such as a high-stakes exam or some other requirement that you’re not particularly interested in, cramming may not be so bad after all. But if you’re a motivated adult learner hoping to improve your vocabulary, pick up a new language, or even re-learn some of the material that has diminished since high school…then take a break!
Cepeda, N., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tests: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132(3), 354-380.