Can’t Concentrate for More than 20 Minutes? No Problem!

Over the years, I’ve noticed that for the first 20 or so minutes that I’m studying, I can pay close attention and retain a lot of information. However, after that, my mind starts to drift and I don’t remember the information I study nearly as well. I have to give myself short breaks or change to a different topic when I feel my focus slipping.

While I have shared this strategy with many students, I didn’t have any hard evidence to back it up. But now I do! A study published in 2013 by Paul Kelley and Terry Whatson proves this exact point. Even better, the strategy advocated in this study is more precise and creates more long-term memories than the strategy I was using before.

The strategy advocated by this study is called “Spaced Learning” or the 20/10 method. Kelley and Whatson recommend studying intensely for 20 minutes, and then give your brain a break by switching to a different activity for 10 minutes. The key is that the “break” activity has to use alternate brain centers, so you don’t overwrite your newly formed memories of the information you are trying to memorize. Ideally, the “break” activity should be physical and should not include much conversation. The students in this study did activities like juggling, origami, paper-cutting activities, musical chairs, play-dough modeling, light aerobics, and basketball drills. Tasks like checking email, web surfing, reading, and writing should be avoided. Kelley and Whatson recommend completing this “Spaced Learning” cycle roughly three times.

The best part about this method is that students seem to really enjoy it. Students who participated in the study said:

The lessons are very compressed. For example, the review of my whole Biology unit was completed in about 12 min. The nervous system, diet deficiencies, hormones and the menstrual cycle, drugs, and defence from pathogens all whiz by on slides shown at the dizzying rate of 7–8 per min. During the 10-min breaks we get physical, rather than mental, activities like basketball dribbling and teamwork games. So what happens inside your head during Spaced Learning that is different from what happens during a traditional lesson or review session? I can only answer for myself. I love rock climbing. You always have to be aware of what comes next, but you can’t consciously think about it. For me, Spaced Learning is a bit like my climbing. I don’t try to learn; I don’t write anything down, and I don’t review. It just seems as if I am seeing a movie in my mind that I have already seen before, and my understanding of the information presented becomes more precise—clearer—when I see it again. In the end, I am left with a movie in my head of the lesson, just like my memory of a climb.

My first experience of Spaced Learning came in March 2007 when my class re-took our science exams from November 2006. We only had a one hour Spaced Learning review session (which had four months of work condensed into it from the summer before). Most of us did better on the exams after an hour of Spaced Learning review, even though we did no studying at all. I went from an A, B and C to straight A’s and an A+. It was amazing.

Check out these videos to see Spaced Learning in action!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager