The Magic of Spaced Repetition and Cognitive Science

How cognitive science can help learning in medicine has been featured on iTeachEM a few times already.

In are Are You Wrong About Learning? we discovered that studying in one place, learning one thing at a time, taking notes in lectures and not studying just before the exam are NOT necessarily good for learning. In Hacking Education we found, among many other great hacks, that learners should check the model answer immediately after attempting each question if they want to learn efficiently.

However, thus far we haven’t mention the holy grail of spaced repetition.

I’ve written a detailed mini-blog-treatise on Learning by Spaced Repetition on LITFL, that describes the concept and how I personally put it into practice using software called Anki. The whole concept of spaced repetition is based on the fact that we remember things best in the long-term if we actively recall them just at the moment we are forgetting them. Given that knowledge of this dates back to Ebbinghaus in the late 1800s it is surprising that there are few studies investigating it’s effectiveness. Nevertheless, for the right sort of information, I’ve found using software and flashcards as part of a spaced repetition program a useful way to memorise previously understood facts.

I was reminded of spaced repetition recently when my LITFL post received a ping-back from an article in the Guardian titled How your brain likes to be treated at revision time. Aside from preaching the virtues of spaced repetition this article emphasizes a few other keys to learning:

  • yes, repetition is the mother of all learning!
  • be wary of mnemonics based on the initial letters of words you need to remember — learning the mnemonic doesn’t help if you can’t remember what each letter stands for! Such systems  are only useful for ordering facts and concepts that you already know well.
  • take breaks! Cognitive overload can lead to jumbling of facts and ineffective learning.
  • avoid distractions — this is a big one for me, background music and other such distractions crush the learning process.
  • we need sleep — sleep helps declutter and consolidate memories, without it we’re doomed (believe me I’ve tried!)
  • use emotions and imagery to associate memories and make them more memorable!

Easy, eh.



  1. says

    I have been using SuperMemo (Spaced Repetition Software been developed since the early to mid-1980s) over the past seven years to learn speak three languages (Working on number 4 now), read many many books and articles about various subjects and keep up with the news. Spaced Repetition should be the basis of all institutional learning, as it is many times more effective at keeping desired knowledge accessible to the mind. Although I enjoy various activities, using SuperMemo to learn new things is my favorite hobby of all time.

  2. says

    Great article. I’m a 3rd year med student. I’ve been using Anki since I started med school, to great effect. I’ve written about it extensively on my blog

    I want to spread the word to other medical students and health professionals about the benefits of SR. It’s so powerful, and knowledge retention is so important, that we can’t not employ SR more in our educational system.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. HobbyHack says

    I recently finished a BS in Business in 8-9 months. One of the keys to success was spaced repetition. The other was focusing on subjects one at a time.

    It amazed me how much of my coursework was based on the same vocabulary, root vocabulary, or underlying concepts (like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). By learning things one time and then maintaining them, I saved a huge amount of time.

    I also learned I could fly through the readings and then take a couple minutes to create a few flashcards to help connect, firm up, and remember information.


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