The spacing effect: it’s possible to dramatically improve learning by correctly spacing practice sessions. The idea is to rehearse (restudy) when the likelihood of recall drops to certain point. Repeating this flattens the “forgetting curve” (likelihood of successfull recall over time).
Long-term memory, the Bjorks said, can be characterized by two components, which they named retrieval strength and storage strength. Retrieval strength measures how likely you are to recall something right now, how close it is to the surface of your mind. Storage strength measures how deeply the memory is rooted. Some memories may have high storage strength but low retrieval strength. Take an old address or phone number. Try to think of it; you may feel that it’s gone. But a single reminder could be enough to restore it for months or years. Conversely, some memories have high retrieval strength but low storage strength. Perhaps you’ve recently been told the names of the children of a new acquaintance. At this moment they may be easily accessible, but they are likely to be utterly forgotten in a few days, and a single repetition a month from now won’t do much to strengthen them at all.
The Bjorks were not the first psychologists to make this distinction, but they and a series of collaborators used a broad range of experimental data to show how these laws of memory wreak havoc on students and teachers. One of the problems is that the amount of storage strength you gain from practice is inversely correlated with the current retrieval strength. In other words, the harder you have to work to get the right answer, the more the answer is sealed in memory. Precisely those things that seem to signal we’re learning well — easy performance on drills, fluency during a lesson, even the subjective feeling that we know something — are misleading when it comes to predicting whether we will remember it in the future. “The most motivated and innovative teachers, to the extent they take current performance as their guide, are going to do the wrong things,” Robert Bjork says. “It’s almost sinister.”
The best time to study something is at the moment you are about to forget it.
I find myself thinking of a checklist Wozniak wrote a few years ago describing how to become a genius. His advice was straightforward yet strangely terrible: You must clarify your goals, gain knowledge through spaced repetition, preserve health, work steadily, minimize stress, refuse interruption, and never resist sleep when tired.