Learning Strategies – Managing Your Learning Through Forgetting and Repetition

A guide to understanding what makes a learning strategy effective or bad.

Passive repetition

What is a Learning Strategy?

Anyone who’s ever played a team sport will know that you don’t just run onto the field and hope for the best.

Instead, you need both a coherent, high-level strategy, and an action plan for delivering on that strategy. Learning is no different.

A good learning strategy will consider the 3 most important aspects of learning – motivation, knowledge retention, and the future transfer of knowledge.

Some of the most effective learning techniques are counterintuitive: they go against common sense and what ‘feels’ right and natural, especially since they’re so different to how we learned at school.

The Forgetting Curve

One of the core considerations that any learning strategy needs to address is the ‘Forgetting Curve.’ This was discovered by a 19th century psychologist called Hermann Ebbinghaus.

Over several studies, Ebbinghaus discovered that, after a single learning session, humans are likely to forget 90% of the material within a month.

This is interesting in itself – but the really crazy thing is that he found that this rate of forgetting followed a curve. The first few days saw most of the information being forgotten, and the later days and weeks saw a much slower rate of forgetting.

He was actually able to plot his findings in a formula that can be represented on a graph.

The formula goes R = exp(-t/S).

What Ebbinghaus’s findings prove is that the first day or two after learning was absolutely crucial to retaining new information.

The Spacing Effect

Clearly, the forgetting curve presents a problem to those of us trying to learn.

How can we prevent that massive loss of information in the first few days?

Well, Ebbinghaus also studied this. He found that the golden rule to embed new knowledge in long-term memory is ‘spaced repetition.’ This is a study technique that involves reviewing material over a longer period, for example, by spreading out lessons or study sessions.

The optimal learning schedule is one where the intervals between retrieval practices become increasingly longer.

For example, you might test yourself an hour after learning something, then a day after that, then a week after, and finally after a month.

This is called ‘expanding retrieval.’ The reason that this works is because retrieving information after you’ve forgotten it requires more work and allows you to go back through the consolidation process again.

The Illusion of Knowing

Have you ever found yourself thinking that you’re an expert in an area – maybe you’ve studied it at university, or read half a dozen books on the topic – but when it comes up in conversation you find yourself unable to remember any interesting facts about it?

This is a cognitive bias called ‘the illusion of knowing.’ It happens because passive repetition, such as re-reading and highlighting, can cause us to overestimate our knowledge and understanding of the topic.


When we practice something actively then resume our practice after a period of time – ideally, just at the point where we feel we are on the brink of forgetting it– we are able to see our blind spots and identify areas that need improving.

Want to really supercharge your learning?

Combine spaced practice with self-testing. This will increase your self-awareness, or ‘meta-memory,’ enabling you to focus harder on areas of difficulty during subsequent practice sessions.

This is the logic behind the ‘smart session’ on Kinnu.

Why Variety Matters

How often have you been told to create a dedicated space for work or study to boost your learning and recall? Maybe you’ve been told that you should turn your desk into a perfect distraction free utopia. Well, the research shows this may not be such a good idea.

In 1978, a trio of psychologists led by Robert Bjork gave 2 groups of college students a list of 40 vocabulary words to revise. One group was instructed to study in a single room and the other group was instructed to divide their study sessions between 2 rooms.

The researchers then tested both groups to see how much of the material they had retained and found that the students who studied in 2 rooms performed far better than the students who studied the same words twice, in the same room.

What was happening here? According to the study’s authors, when the external context is varied, the information we take in is enriched, which slows down forgetting.

This, they asserted, is because the brain subtly associates what it is studying with the background sensations it has while learning.


Imagine sitting in your English class and your teacher suddenly asks you to name the capital of Mali. You might feel a bit annoyed (admittedly, this is an extreme example).

But the principle behind this – mixing your learning topics within different contexts, can actually be a great help to your learning. It’s called interleaving.

You might think that this will lead to confusion – but in fact it can be crucial to learning.

Interleaving is a learning strategy that involves switching between topics and ideas in a short space of time. It sounds counterintuitive but jumping between topics has been found to improve recall by about 40%.

Rather than getting you into a rhythm, it encourages you to stay conscious of what exactly it is you are learning. This sharpens your discrimination skills, and also helps you recall the information without warning – which should be the aim of any learning.

However, we still don’t know everything about interleaving. For instance, it’s been proven that interleaving doesn’t work with completely unrelated material, but it’s still not known how closely related the material needs to be for interleaving to work.

Does Confusion Help?

Opponents of inter-leaving often say that it can lead to students getting confused. What happens if they mix up their geography with their math? Well, according to learning scientists, when it comes to learning, getting mixed up can actually be a good thing.

Varying the conditions under which we learn makes learning harder but leads to better learning. This is because, when learning occurs under varied conditions, important ideas can be brought to mind in several different contexts.

This leads learners to have a deeper understanding of the concepts themselves, rather than just viewing them within specific contexts. For example – you may not really understand what you’ve learned in your statistics class until you have to calculate a country’s GDP per capita for your geography homework.

The Power of Walking Away

Have you ever been stuck on a problem and found that walking about actually helps? Maybe while ruminating you finally had your ‘eureka’ moment – after all, Archimedes made his great discovery in the bathtub.

Alternatively, what if you had your big creative design breakthrough at the dinner table rather than sitting at the canvas. Alan Turing had his breakthrough on solving the Enigma code while having a drink in a pub. Bertrand Russell famously claimed he came up with logical proof for the existence of God while buying tobacco for his pipe.

Well, the fact that good learning can come when you aren’t consciously working is not just something that we know empirically: it is also scientifically proven.

This is due to the phenomena of incubation and percolation. These are 2 similar ways of processing information that operate on different timeframes.
Incubation involves walking away for a short amount of time whereas percolation involves a longer absence from the content. However, both processes are great for problem-solving.

Incubation and Percolation

Incubation means setting aside a problem for a period of time to allow it to be processed unconsciously. This is a useful strategy for problems that, “at their core, have a single solution that is not readily apparent.”

Incubation is a fast-acting solution when you’re feeling stuck. It involves taking a short break to take a step back from a problem, and allowing your mind to wander. This can often be as simple as standing up and changing your physical position, going for a walk or doing the dishes, before coming back to a piece of work.

What is Percolation?

If we want to solve problems that are more complicated, we are going to need a more intricate solution. Often, learning a new area of study requires a set of ‘threshold concepts.’ These are the essentials necessary to understand the whole field.

In order to establish threshold concepts, a significant amount of processing time is necessary. We might need an hour, a day, a week, or even more to give our ideas room to breathe. This idea is called ‘percolation.’

One way to think about percolation is to think about a pour-over coffee filter. If you pour too much water into the filter it will overflow, and you’ll be left with a hot mess. The way to get the perfect cup of coffee is to pour the water in a little at a time, allowing it to sink through, before you add a little more.

Percolation requires longer breaks than incubation, but it is better for instilling totally new and complicated concepts.

You will forget 90% of this article in 7 days.

Download Kinnu to have fun learning, broaden your horizons, and remember what you read. Forever.

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