Using Spaced Repetition to Make Things Stick
04 February, 2021
As a student, you likely have many activities competing for your time: working, exercising, eating, honouring family or social commitments and, of course, studying! As an aspiring doctor, you will have plenty of studying to do, both now and in the future, so knowing how to study for the GAMSAT efficiently and learn a lot of information in a relatively short amount of time is a useful skill to learn as soon as possible.
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Equally as important as learning information is making the information stick long-term, such that the information becomes useful beyond the next assessment. Spaced repetition is a good tool for long-term retention. In spaced repetition, you revise the information at intervals that become progressively longer. For example, if you learn something today, you can revise it again tomorrow, then a week later, then two weeks after the previous review, and then a month after the previous review.
Spaced repetition can seem very daunting at first. It can also require more time at first, because you need to revise information from the week or month before, on top of learning new information. However, when it comes time to study for exams, you will hopefully be able to spend less time cramming and be less stressed overall, because most of the information should be in your long-term memory by then.
Spaced Repetition and Flashcards
While flashcards are not the only way to practice spaced repetition, they are perhaps some of the most common tools due to their simplicity. You can make physical cards using paper or index cards or whatever else you have on hand, or you can use electronic flashcards by using spaced repetition software such as Anki (free unless you are using iOS) or Repetitions. Personally, I prefer using electronic flashcards, as it is much easier to organise large numbers of flashcards using flashcard software than via physical cards. Spaced repetition software programs also use an algorithm that will force you to revise more difficult content more often, and easier content less often. That way, you won’t waste as much time revising easy content, while also spending more time on content that you need more time on.
Here are some tips for making effective flashcards:
- Keep each card simple, i.e. one fact per card. If you put down a whole list of items to remember on a flashcard, there’s a good chance that you’ll only remember some of those items, and then you will have to make a decision on whether to mark that card as incorrect because you couldn’t remember every item, or whether to mark that card correct despite not knowing everything on it.
- In a similar vein, consider using cloze deletion cards, in which there is a sentence with a word or phrase removed. Cloze deletion cards are easy to make and are also simple as each card only tests a small amount of content.
- Consider using image occlusion, in which there is an image with a label removed. This is a particularly good method for image-heavy classes such as anatomy. If you are using Anki on a computer, you can download the Image Occlusion plug-in which makes it easier to make cards like these.
- The back of flashcards is also a good place to put explanations and/or references to textbooks. That way, if you forget something, it will be easier to figure out where to go to re-learn it if necessary. Furthermore, reading and writing explanations will help you to understand the content so that you are not just brute forcing it into your brain.
- Consider using pre-made decks to save time but remember that there are risks involved. Pre-made decks are a double-edged sword: they can save you a lot of time, but you may encounter mistakes in other people’s flashcards or may have to sift through a lot of content that is irrelevant to you.
Other Examples of Spaced Repetition
While the use of flashcards is one of the most popular ways to use spaced repetition, it is not the only way. An even simpler way of using spaced repetition is to take note of the topics that are due for revision on different days, and then revising said topic using whatever materials you have handy. For example, if you are studying maths or another subject that has a lot of practice problems, you can do relevant practice problems on the days earmarked for revision of that topic. Virtually any study technique can also be used in conjunction with spaced repetition, as spaced repetition is more about when you study rather than about how you study. For best results, however, we recommend using active learning methods in conjunction with spaced repetition.
Spaced repetition is a powerful tool that can help you to transfer new knowledge from your short-term memory into your long-term memory. While it requires a greater initial investment at first than studying different topics in chunks, the payoffs are well worth it. After consolidating information into your long-term memory, you should hopefully find that your study burden at exam time is greatly reduced, along with your stress levels. For more GAMSAT exam study tips, visit our guide here.