The Best Way to Memorize Depends on Content and Timing

Written by Camilla Jessen

Mar.18 - 2024 11:55 AM CET

Recent research shed new light on how we learn and how we remember our real-world experiences.

Trending Now

Recent research conducted by psychologists at Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh offers new insights into learning and memory processes.

Published in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), this paper suggests that varying what we study and spacing out our learning over time can be helpful for memory. It just depends on what we're trying to remember.

Spacing Effect and Real-Life Learning

Benjamin Rottman, an associate professor of psychology at Pitt, emphasizes the well-documented benefits of spreading study sessions over time, known as the spacing effect.

He explains, "If you cram the night before a test, you might remember the information the next day for the test, but you will probably forget it fairly soon. In contrast, if you study the material on different days leading up to the test, you will be more likely to recall it for a longer period of time."

However, most research on the spacing effect assumes that the material being learned is identical across sessions, which does not reflect the variability seen in real-life experiences.

This new study explores how memory is affected when some aspects of the learning material change over time.

Experiments on Learning and Memory

The researchers conducted two experiments to investigate how variations in learning material and the timing of study opportunities influence memory.

In the first experiment, participants used their smartphones to learn and test their memory over a 24-hour period, mirroring real-world learning more closely than traditional laboratory settings. The second experiment collected data online in a single session, allowing for the analysis of spacing effects over shorter timescales.

"Using these two designs, we could examine how having material that more closely resembles our experiences of repetition in the real world - where some aspects stay the same but others differ - impacts memory if you are exposed to that information in quick succession versus over longer intervals… from seconds to minutes, or hours to days," Emily Cowan, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow in Temple's Adaptive Memory Lab, stated.

Findings and Implications

The study found that spaced learning improved memory for individual items, especially when those items were paired with different scenes or contexts.

"If you want to remember a new person's name, repeating the name but associating it with different information about the person can actually be helpful," Cowan suggested.

Conversely, associative memory, which involves remembering an item and its context, benefitted from consistency and was only enhanced by spacing when the material was repeated exactly and over longer intervals.

"This work demonstrates the benefits of spaced learning on memory are not absolute, instead depending on the variability present in the content across repetitions and the timing between learning opportunities, expanding our current understanding of how the way in which we learn information can impact how it is remembered," according to Cowan.

Future Directions

"Our work suggests that both variability and spacing may present methods to improve our memory for isolated features and associative information, respectively, raising important applications for future research, education, and our everyday lives," she concluded.