Use Your Time Better and Maximise Your Learning Using the Swiss Cheese Technique

by Aggie Chapman

Learning a language can be a pretty daunting task. That’s why many people give up on it – with years of practice, memorising vocabulary, and doing endless grammar activities looming over, it feels nothing short of impossible.

Preparing for an exam can be equally off-putting, there seems to be so much to learn that you can’t even decide where to start. So, you leave it for tomorrow, or Monday, or better still – next month… Sounds familiar? I’m sure. We’ve all been there, but what if I told you that there is a way of dealing with it?

The clever and at the same time very simple trick is called the Swiss cheese technique. Just like nobody would try to eat the whole, huge wheel of cheese, we shouldn’t try to learn lots of material at once, or schedule long hours of practise. Instead, we can punch holes in our routine (just like the holes in Swiss cheese!) and use the small gaps we have during the day to do bits of practice. Notice that the holes in the cheese are hardly spread evenly, or the same size… But there are so many of them that it’s impossible to cut a piece without a few holes in it!

The same should happen when we’re learning. Instead of overloading our memory with tons of new information in one sitting, feed it more often with smaller portions (there’s a reason for saying that it’s more digestible!), ideally starting with the things that you find easy. Our concentration span is relatively short, and after about 20-30 minutes we need a break or a change of focus. But when you don’t have quite as much time, or energy, don’t give up altogether, do something else – revise the vocabulary with one of the apps (Quizlet, Babadum, or other), or flashcards, watch a film and note down a few new expressions, read a chapter of a book, or talk to your speaking exchange partner (here you can read about language exchange websites). Suddenly, what looked like impossible and overwhelming becomes perfectly doable.

Of course, sometimes we feel really up for it and working hard for an hour or so isn’t a problem. Great! Use that time to do longer tasks, like doing a whole practice test, or writing a composition. Have you noticed that the holes in cheese are not the same size? 😉

There are many different things that we can do, and each of our Swiss cheese wheels will be different, depending on our lifestyle and language goals, but what matters is that you keep finding holes in the cheese, and learn with some degree of regularity. It’s up to you if you decide to work on your language every day, every other day, or split your work to do different short bits at different times on the same day. Using a language journal or tracker can help you keep an eye on your progress.

Don’t forget that even when we’re very busy it’s possible to squeeze in a few “holes” into our daily routine. I often start my day reading the news or one of the blogs I follow in a foreign language, then I’ll play with Quizlet or have a look through my vocabulary notebook between the lessons, and usually listen to a podcast if I drive long distance. I’ll also have an episode of TV series in a foreign language in the background when I exercise.  All it really takes is a bit of planning and discipline, then, like every habit, it simply becomes natural.

Are you beginning to see how this little trick can beat the temptation to procrastinate? While seeing a pile of materials to go through will surely make you cringe, the thought of 5 minutes of playing on an app, or 10 minutes of listening practice are nowhere nearly as bad. Plus, you get a sense of satisfaction after completing a task and thus you’ll feel more positive next time you’re about to study.

Now you’re probably can’t believe how easy your learning may be. It’s true, the Swiss cheese method makes you use your time effectively – every small gap counts, but also you train your memory and concentration by doing small bits of practice. With time, you’ll probably notice that your practice time slots become longer, and just like that – your concentration’s improved thanks to this technique. So, there’s no time like the present – get your planner and put in a few holes in your Swiss cheese for this week. Start gently, think of 3-5 things that you can do when you have 5 minutes free. Write down what you’re going to do and  enjoy ticking them off as you go along!

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