What’s the Optimal Length of Time to Review a Piece of Information

Ideally, one day kids won’t learn vocabulary or history through rote memorization (Battle of Hastings — 1066!!), but until then the best we can do is to figure out how to actually be good at rote memorization. A group of psychologists from Erasmus University Rotterdam decided to help the kids out by examining the optimal duration for studying a particular item.

The researchers gave subjects a list of word pairs, but varied the number of times subjects reviewed the list (16, 8, 4, 2, or 1) and the amount of time they reviewed each word pair (1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 seconds). The overall amount of study time was held constant so that subjects who reviewed the list 16 times saw each word for 1 second, subjects who reviewed it 8 times saw each word for 2 seconds, subjects who reviewed it 4 times saw each word for 4 seconds, and so on. The verdict? Subjects who who avoided the longest (16s) and shortest (1s) durations retained more information when testeed after 5 minutes and when tested after 2 days.

Performance was poor for short (e.g., 1 s) and long (e.g., 16 s) presentation durations and much better for intermediate (e.g., 4 s) presentation durations. These results indicate that the presentation duration of individual exposures has a large effect on memory performance even when the total study time is kept constant.

I bring up this study not because it’s crucial for our education system, but because in the future every part of our lives will be designed based on this type of research. Advertisements, online dating profiles, and all manner of printed instructions will be optimized for the perfect exposure length. If you can get past the tediously-robotic post-apocalyptic stench emanating from the previous sentence, you might consider that such advancements will ultimately have a positive effect because they will save people small amounts of time, and time is the most valuable commodity of all.


de Jonge, M., Tabbers, H., Pecher, D., & Zeelenberg, R. (2012). The effect of study time distribution on learning and retention: A Goldilocks principle for presentation rate. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 38 (2), 405-412 DOI: 10.1037/a0025897


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