Adding Spaced Repetition to Your Study Toolkit

Feb. 19, 2024

Part 1 of 3 in the Study Essentials Series

View from above of students studying on laptops in McClelland Hall

Gregor Orbino

Studying is always a fraught topic with undergraduates.  What is the best strategy?  Should I highlight? Review my lecture notes? Read the textbook again?  In this series about study essentials, we will review proven strategies that medical students employ to both learn and retain information.  Medical students are a bit of an extreme, as they are required to learn and retain so much information that it is often likened to "drinking from a fire hose." In other words, it's nearly impossible to retain everything they are expected to learn--but they have to try.  A time-tested, scientifically proven method that medical students rely upon (and you should too) is called spaced repetition (Augustin, 2014; Dobson, 2012).  

What is Spaced Repetition?

Spaced repetition is the act of learning and then reviewing at spaced intervals, preferably with increasing intervals between them.  For example, you go to lecture on Monday and actively take notes and listen.  We'll call the lecture time "Hour 0."   You then read through your notes and ask yourself questions (maybe even researching answers) about that same material later that evening (Hour 5 or so).  You then let a day pass and review the notes and related information (readings, videos, etc.) at Hour 24-30 or so--not more than  a day later.  Then you wait two days and review again at Hour 72-80.  Then again at 1 week after the lecture (Hour 168 or so), and again another week later.

The idea is that you are increasing the time between reviews and trying to actively recall the information.  This can be asking yourself questions you wrote down, maybe reviewing with flashcards  or an app like Quizlet, Remnote, or Anki (a preferred method among many students).  The more active you make the recall, the better your retention is likely to be. 


Studies have also found that expanding the time between recall sessions is most helpful (when compared to intervals of the same length) (Dobson, 2012).  An ideal set up is to review a day after the initial learning, then two to three days later, followed by the next session a week from the original time and then a week from then (day 1, then 3, then 7 and 14 from when you start).  The first most critical step is not to delay your first review session more than a day from when you first learned the content.  The intervals after that are much more flexible and can change as needed depending on your schedule, but it is generally a good idea to review at most a week later.  Any interval of review is always better than nothing--don't get deterred because you can't meet a rigid schedule; however, the best retention in systematic trials has been found to be with intervals that grow in duration (Dobson, 2012).

Active Recall

Active recall is a key part of the spaced repetition strategy when it comes to doing the actual "repetition" part.  It's also just a great way to check your knowledge.  We will go into active recall next week in part 2 of the Study Essentials Series.

More Resources

As with any strategy, you will only get as much as you invest in using it.  Now is a great time to try this out, as we are still relatively early in the semester and you can maybe even employ this strategy in time for an test or midterm exam to see how it works for you.  A great method may also be to employ some of the other strategies we have talked about this semester.  Make an action plan and list out the topics you need to study and schedule 30 mins to an hour for review.  Then use the Pomodoro method and set a time for 25 minutes to focus either on creating your flashcards or actively reviewing content.  You can do this

Here are some more links/videos on spaced repetition if you'd like to dive deeper and see some examples:



Augustin, 2014

Augustin M. (2014). How to learn effectively in medical school: test yourself, learn actively, and repeat in intervals. The Yale journal of biology and medicine, 87(2), 207–212.

Dobson, 2012

Dobson J. L. (2012). Effect of uniform versus expanding retrieval practice on the recall of physiology information. Advances in physiology education, 36(1), 6–12.