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I'm a college student with four classes. I typically study like:

Mon - Class A (4 hours)
Tue - Class B (4 hours)
etc.

The 4 hours aren't in a row (I take breaks and all that).

One of my friends suggested a different study plan where one studies all four classes briefly every day instead of only one or two a day in large blocks:

Mon - Class A, B, C, and D (an hour a piece)
Tue- Class A, B, C, and D (an hour a piece)
etc.

His idea is that it will help retain information since you're dealing with every course every single day.

Assuming the total amount of studying per week is equivalent between the two plans, is there any evidence that one way of studying is better than the other? Will studying each class briefly every day increase productivity and learning?

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3 Answers

I think this very much depends what you are studying... and more generally what you are doing and possibly even what sort of person you are.

To give an example, when I write software I find it difficult to achieve very much in one hour because it takes me 20 minutes to remember where I was and I'm just not effective until I've properly warmed up - so if I'm writing code I'm much better if I block out the whole morning and nail the door shut. In the same way, if I'm learning a new programming language I'll want to take the same approach because it takes me 20 minutes to get into the right zone.

On the other hand when I try and learn physical movements: a sport or juggling trick or dance - I am effectively useless after about 45 minutes (regardless of how fit I am, this is fairly constant)

I would suggest that you find a balance that works for you - this sort of thing is riddled with placebos - personally I think that spending equal amounts of time on all classes might not be optimal anyway - depending on how the grade boundaries and such work out - it might be best to concentrate on your weaker subject until you can't take them any more and then spend the rest of the time on the subject you enjoy...

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Your friend is right that more frequent reviews will help you learn and retain material, but changing tasks has a huge transaction cost so I don't think you need to cover every subject every day. Besides the time needed to get oriented on a new agenda item, every transition is an opportunity to get distracted by the lastest facebook/news/email update. So minimize transitions as much as possible. Monolithic scheduling defined by one or two "Most Important Tasks" (aka MITs) is best for avoiding these transaction costs.

To get the benefits of the spacing effect, I highly recommend Anki. I'm a diehard fan of this free application, and I use it to keep me in at least peripheral contact with all my subjects every day. Since reviewing Anki is one 'task' and I've made it a daily ritual, I don't lose tons of time switching activities in order to cover different subjects. If you have an iPhone or iPod, you can get the mobile app for a few bucks and do all your daily reviews during dead time. But even a 30-60 minute Anki ritual on your desktop will pay huge dividends if you stick with it.

Monolithic scheduling has the advantage of clarity (I know this has to get done now, not later), simplicity, and efficiency (minimum task switching time loss).

I prefer:

  • Monday: MIT = Class A. I must complete all homework for class A today. No other time will be alotted to class A this week, so it's now or never. After finishing assignments and reading, add ~15 Anki cards covering the most important items covered this week for class A. Review all due Anki cards (for all subjects).

  • Tuesday: MIT = Class B. Do all of B's work, and add new Anki cards for subject B. Review all Anki cards due for all subjects.

  • Rinse and repeat.

By having each day of the week be defined by one "Most Important Task" plus Anki reps for all subjects, I find that I still get the benefits of the spacing effect without bleeding away huge amounts of time deciding what to do next.

Another advantage of this kind of thinking and planning is that you have semi-firm self-imposed deadlines every day. These hard limits helps you stay on the good side of Parkinson's Law. If you limit yourself to 4 days on 4 classes, you still have 3 days per week for research or personal projects. But if spend some time every day on each subject, I'd be very surprised if you had any time left over for more interesting activities.

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Your friend' suggestion is good. This is due to marginal utility concept. As we study at a stretch our mind capacity to receive the required information is reduced and they do not work optimally.

You may distribute the hours on a fixed one hour plan. If you are completing a chapter in another 20 minutes or so, I think instead of breaking you should continue it.

The timing should be in a range say from 1 hour to 1 hours 30 minutes.

This will surely work. However, you have to work hard to start your study more than once.

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