Retaining Information through Repetition

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Ahhhh! It seems like I always have to cram the night before a test!!

School can be overwhelming! Tests, quizzes, and projects can pile up very quickly, leaving some students to cram material the night before, not study at all, or break down because of the mounting stress. At times it seems like teachers and professors forget that we are taking more than just their class, and it seems like they want to punish us with one test after another at the most inconvenient times during the week. How can anyone possibly keep up!?

Trust me, every student has been where you are! Every student has questioned their ability to keep up with the curriculum, adequately prepare for the test without cramming the night before, and still achieve a decent grade. You’re not alone.

In all my years of being a student, I have found that the tests that I have been most prepared for are the tests that involve subject matter that is consistently on my mind.

I know what you’re thinking— “Why would I want to keep a school subject on my mind?? The last thing I want to think about after school is calculus or chemistry.”

I am not saying that you have to think about school 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, but I am saying that repetition definitely helps cement concepts in your brain. Think about how easily you can sing the lyrics your favorite songs and quote lines from your favorite movies but struggle to remember the rules for conjugating Spanish verbs in the future tense or remember which U.S President signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (It was Lyndon B. Johnson). Repetition is the key. I’m sure that you are constantly listening to those songs on the way to school or soccer practice. You hear them often enough that you can sing along. So why not apply the same methods to your school work to ensure that you ace your tests? Repetition does not have to be an arduous process of re-writing your notes ten times. If you use the right study methods, it can be just as easy as memorizing those song lyrics.

The key to intelligent repetition while studying is to isolate the “big ticket” problems early on in your test preparation and use repetition to hammer the techniques into your brain. As my high school chemistry teacher used to say “Don’t practice until you get the problem right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.” What works best for most students is self-assigning a few extra practice problems or some extra writing for the most important terms and concepts.

For classes that require calculations (i.e. math and science), Do the assigned work and then turn to the back of the textbook and do 3-5 EXTRA problems that you know are going to show up on the test to ensure that you understood that topic completely. Most of the time it’s best to do problems that have an answer key. This way, you can check your work and eliminate bad habits before it’s too late. As the class progresses, continue to do practice problems in the current chapter, but don’t forget about the old chapters. Math and science class in particular tend to build on previously learned concepts as the year progresses. Making sure you don’t lose foundational concepts as the course progresses is essential for success. For example, if your geometry class finishes chapter one and moves on to chapter two, your study schedule should adjust as well. Do 1-2 extra problems from chapter one and then 2-5 extra problems from chapter two. Then, when your class advances to chapter three, do 1-2 problems from chapter 1, 1-2 problems from chapter 2 and 2-3 problems from chapter 3. Remember, these problems are in addition to the ones the normally assigned for homework.

For classes based on definitions, dates, and processes like history or Spanish, we can use a similar process of repetition to retain information in the long run. For each chapter, figure out the 20% of material that is most important, meaning the material that has a higher chance of appearing on a final exam. Most of the time, textbooks highlight these words. Another way to figure out what is most important is to review the tests from that chapter. After you have narrowed down the amount of material that you need to remember for an upcoming test or exam, use repetition to move into long term memory. Some students do this by rewriting their list of information. Writing requires you to use multiple parts of the brain, meaning that you have a higher chance of retaining it. Other students use flashcards or Quizlet to keep material fresh in their minds. Set aside ten minutes of study time each day for reviewing old material using these repetition-based methods. As the weeks go by, you will be able to recall the information without much effort.

At this point, you are probably thinking “Is all that extra time really worth it? I have enough going on already, and I don’t want to do extra homework”. Remember, our goal is to avoid cramming and get the best grades that we possibly can. Studying a little bit each day using repetition saves time and reduces stress later on. Think of it like watering a garden. If you water it for five minutes each day, the garden will be much healthier than if you waited until the last day of the month and poured thirty days’ worth of water on it all at once. The garden simply cannot absorb all that water at one time, so waiting until the last minute is a waste of water and time. Likewise, your brain cannot absorb an entire chapter or an entire semester of material at one time, so cramming the night before the test is a waste of time and energy. Instead, use repetition and let your brain absorb the material slowly. When it comes time for final exams, you are going to have much more free time than most of your classmates.

If you feel overwhelmed by all the material you are required to learn in school and all the other things that you have to keep up with as a modern-day student, I encourage you to try to keep the material consistently in your mind by using these techniques. Repetition will help you earn better grades, decrease your stress levels, and feel more confident on test day. 

Happy learning!

Robert Timmons

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