Retain More of What You Learn by Spacing Out

Dr. Jolene Church, SCP, ICF-MCC
6 min readApr 1, 2022


photo credit: shutterstock

Meg is a middle-aged woman who is a self-reported terrible student. Meg believes that retaining information has gotten more and more difficult as she has aged. Can you relate?

The truth is you don’t have to be advancing in age to not retain information.

It’s a shocking fact that we forget 90% of what we learn within one week. This phenomenon is known as the forgetting curve (originally the Ebbinghaus Curve, developed by German philosopher, Hermann Ebbinghaus). So how do we combat losing 90% of what we learn?

Perhaps you have tried one of the following techniques in preparing for an exam.

1) It’s the night before the big test, you are panicked as you have not had time to study. Late into the night, you study, cramming in as much information as you can.

2) It’s weeks or months before your certification examination. You have been reading and taking notes as you have been reviewing the study materials.

Up to 40% of student experience test anxiety. This means that regardless whether you prepared weeks and months in advance or crammed the night or days before the test, fear of failure set in. Why is this?

We have roughly 70,000 thoughts in a day. Many believe that only 5% of our thoughts are new thoughts and 80% of our thoughts are negative.

It goes without saying with these stats in mind, that it you are nervous about failure going into an exam, that the continued programming that is playing in your background thoughts is fear of failure.

Perhaps you have tried cramming or used continual preparation techniques prior to an exam and it worked. You passed! Congratulations on the short-term win.

Again, the forgetting curve comes into play. So how do we recall more in the long-term and better prepare for examinations so that the information that we learn sticks?

The answer is simple. We stop wasting time!

By focusing on how we absorb information and how best to retain information, we can develop techniques that fit our learning style and help make the information stick.

Here are some interesting facts:

· Watching videos, attending a lecture, or listening to an audiobook averages a 5% retention rate.

· Only 10% of what you read is retained.

· 23% more is recollected from notetaking from reading or listening alone.

· We experience a 70% increase in memory of information if we review the information within 24 hours.

· Engaged learning increases retention from between 75–90%.

So how can we use this information to improve our learning retention?

We repeatedly engage multiple sensory elements in the brain known as active recall and metacognition. It sounds complex, but it’s insanely simple and incredibly effective.

With my coaching clients that are preparing for an examination or my graduate students that are mastering new concepts, I recommend a process that I developed, Spaced Repetition Flashing System (SRFS) ©.

SRFS is a technique that optimizes elements of each area of learning retention. Here is how it works.

SRFS is a simple flash card system, yet unlike how most people have used flash cards, SRF, does not focus on “crammed” learning. The focus of the SRFS is based on cognitive repetition research. Why it works is because it builds individual confidence and confidence in the materials learned.

Here is how to implement a Spaced Repetitive Flashing System to learn and master new concepts for maximum retention.

What you will need:

You will need to a pack of standard index cards.

How the system is used:

· The index cards are used to create flash cards that will contain key or interesting facts or statistics, terminology, key dates, or whatever information is important to retain. These will look like traditional flash cards and will have a clue on one side and an answer on the other. For example, in preparing for a geometry exam, one side might say, “hypotenuse” and the other would give the definition.

· Rather than creating all flash cards and then repeatedly drilling yourself or having someone else assist by drilling you on the cards in advance of your exam, you will create 5–10 cards every time you study and then drill yourself throughout the day. I will explain this process below.

· Cards are created from your notes or highlighted reading materials, instead of as you encounter new information.

How to:

STEP 1- In a typical flash card system, learners develop flash cards that act as a stand-alone study technique. In the SRFS, as learners read, watch a video, listen to a lecture, they identify information that they need to remember, keeping in mind that notetaking will help retain 23% more information over reading, listening, or watching alone.

STEP 2- For every study session*, learners should create 5–10 flash cards from the notes that they took or highlighted information within their learning. Again, the act of taking notes or highlighting the information is super important as it engages a different part of the brain. Taking key elements and creating flash cards reinforces the learning, which reinforces cognitive repetition.

*Important Note:

Many learners benefit from shorter bursts of learning sessions. Instead of long, marathon studying, consider breaking down study time into 3 or 4 study sessions throughout the day. These can be as short as 20 minutes each, but cumulatively may add up to an hour or more.

Additionally, learner retention is enhanced by daily learning of at least 5 days per week, even if for only 20 minutes each day. This approach works really well with my older students and clients and those folks with busy schedules. It’s excuse-proof and gets results because of learning continuity.

STEP 3- Throughout the day, every day, randomly pull 5 flash cards and either quiz yourself or have a friend or loved one quiz you on the cards. Ideally, you will pull 5 flash cards in the morning, mid-day and in the evening. What’s great about this process is that you can be getting ready in the morning while giving yourself a quick quiz.

The Benefits:

Now for the good stuff. This is why this system works so well.

1) Rather than cramming information, you are continually presenting yourself with information that you have deemed important to retain.

2) Research shows that the more you believe something is true, the easier it is to retain the information. After just one repeat of information, cognitively, your brain is recognizing that “fact” as being more truthful, thus more memorable.

3) When you do not answer a card correctly, your brain is wired to “fix the problem”. Problem-solving, finding the correct answer, increases engagement between new thoughts (remember just 5% of all thoughts are new) and confidence in the facts (memory).

4) Spacing out your recollection of facts by randomly presenting cards throughout the day, every day, greatly reduces the impact of the forgetting curve and increases memory.

The key to this system is that you are randomly and repeatedly attempting to recall new information that you have already reinforced by first, note-taking, second, developing flash cards, and then finally recalling over an ongoing time-period.

By spacing out memory recall and repeatedly doing so, you cognitively increase subconscious information confidence and greatly increase self-confidence.

Before I end this article, I wanted to close the loop on Meg. Meg used this system in preparing her for her 2nd attempt at passing the California Real Estate Exam. Self-doubt (remember the 80% of negative thoughts that we have in a day), was creeping in, and Meg thought that maybe she just wasn’t cut out to pursue her dream.

The day before her scheduled exam, Meg’s best friend died in a freak accident. Meg was distraught. She was already battling self-doubt and now completely grief-stricken over the loss of her dear friend. I encouraged Meg to move forward and take the test.

Despite having a heavy heart that day, Meg took her test. Finally, near the end of hours of testing, the tears welling up in her eyes were too overwhelming. The tears began to stream heavily down her face. She felt that she had no brainpower left.

With simply nothing left, she submitted her test.

She passed!

Her repeatedly spaced flash carding of test facts had stuck with her. Even with test questions unanswered, she had done well-enough on the test by the time she chose to give up that passed.

Meg is now a licensed real estate professional. She no longer believes that she can’t learn. Instead, she has learned how to not waste time learning.



Dr. Jolene Church, SCP, ICF-MCC

Executive coach and workforce optimization consultant. Member of the Forbes Coaches Council. Best-selling author and speaker.