Over the past few decades, cognitive psychologists have found evidence for the following 6 strategies for effective learning:
Today we’re introducing spaced practice - spacing out studying the same information over multiple sessions rather than cramming it all into one (1).
What is spaced practice?
We talk about how the idea is really simple in theory, but harder to implement. The benefits of spaced practice have been demonstrated in many domains, from fact learning (2), to problem solving (3), and even to musical instrument learning (4). We also talk about how the benefits of spaced practice appear on a delayed test rather than an immediate test (5).
For more about how spaced practice can be helpful and instructions for how to implement it during studying, see this blog post.
How can we get students to space out their learning?
It's hard! You can try to help students set aside blocks of time to study: first have them log how they spend their time for a week, and then have them look for times in their schedule that they could dedicate to studying. Even if they only plan to study 5 minutes each day, that's infinitely more than 0 minutes! You might want to use a time log to use with your students to help them plan for spaced practice. On the podcast, we describe our own attempts at implementing spaced practice in our real lives - with variable success.
If your students need help forming intentions and sticking to them - don't we all? - you can share this guest post with them.
Implementing spaced practice in the classroom
Since it is quite difficult for students to independently engaged in spaced practice, teachers might consider providing students with opportunities for spaced practice as part of the mandatory classroom experience. If you're really planning ahead, you can try to break up the topics you're teaching and space them all out throughout the semester - but this is tricky (though see here for a resource digest full of ideas for spaced teaching).
A lighter approach to introducing spacing is to give students an opportunity to practice the information you've taught at a later date, for example by implementing "lagged" homework. In this system, homework on a given topic is given a few weeks after the topic is taught.
For more on how to implement lagged homework, see this teacher's blog post.
Another idea is to combine spaced practice with retrieval practice, providing students with in-class opportunities to retrieve information from previous classes. A teacher in the UK proposed the following method:
We hope you enjoyed this podcast! Check back in 2 weeks, when we’ll be releasing a “bite-size research” episode describe an interesting paper on spaced practice.
The Learning Scientists Podcast is funded by The Wellcome Trust.
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(1) Ebbinghaus, H. (1913). Memory (HA Ruger & CE Bussenius, Trans.). New York: Columbia University, Teachers College. (Original work published 1885). Retrieved from http://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Ebbinghaus/memory8.htm
(2) DeRemer, P., & D'Agostino, P. R. (1974). Locus of distributed lag effect in free recall. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 13, 167-171.
(3) Grote, M. G. (1995). The effect of massed versus spaced practice on retention and problem-solving in High School physics. Ohio Journal of Science, 95, 243-247.
(4) Simmons, A. L. (2012). Distributed practice and procedural memory consolidation in musicians’ skill learning. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59, 357-368.
(5) Rawson, K. A., & Kintsch, W. (2005). Rereading effects depend on time of test. Journal of Educational Psychology, 97, 70-80.