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Incremental Studying

Have you ever pulled an overnighter before an exam, just to realize that you don’t really remember everything that you’ve studied?

Yes, I, for one, have been in that situation. It’s really never a good idea to study everything that you need to learn at one time. Rather, you should break up your study into incremental parts that you slowly build on. I know that most of my friends who aced that exam studied in a similar fashion. In a learning point of view, it actually makes sense. If you’re learning to play guitar, your tutor will usually teach you different lessons, slowly building up, over weekly classes. No one wants to learn the chords and all the major and minor progressions at one go. It’s quite similar to the way you’d learn a language. Studying in increments will always prove more successful, and this is due to something called the primacy and recency effects.

The best way to explain this is through an example.

Say, you’re trying to memorize a list of 20 words at a time. Chances are, you’ll probably be able to memorize the first five or so words, and the last five or so words. This is simply because of the patterns of concentration before learning. You’re more attentive and alert during the beginning, with a noticeable sag in the middle, and as you see that the data in front of you is coming to an end, your concentration picks up again. The peak in concentration levels in the beginning is called the primacy effect, and the return of concentration towards the end is called the recency effect.

The point is that there will always be a sag in the middle. It is very difficult to remember a large amount of information that is presented in front of you. Take magazines for example, the most expensive pages to advertise on a magazine would be the front pages and the back pages, since research shows that these are the pages more likely to be remembered. Similarly, a large amount of information, say studying 5 chapters of your book at once, will result in higher recall of the first and last chapters. The way you should counter this effect is by studying incrementally; break up your study sessions into 5 days if you had 5 chapters to study, for example. This works so that the sag between the primacy and recency effect is kept at a minimal level. If you were to study only chapter 1 of your book today, you’ll retain more information from that chapter than if you studied all 5 chapters. To maximize effectiveness, you may even break up your study sessions, like having a 10 minute break between every 30 minutes of studying, thus minimizing the sag even greater.

So, the next time an exam is coming up, consider studying breaking up your studying. That overnighter is not only going to kill your memory retention, but the lack of sleep will also kill your memory recall! You’re not only studying more efficiently, but your body will also thank you for the good night’s rest you’ll get before that stressful exam.

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