12 Building Blocks to Use Learning Technologies Effectively – Building Block 8: Spaced Learning

The world is in the grip of the corona virus. Schools have been closed and people are urged to work from home if possible. Education institutions and organisations alike are trying to figure out how to help their students or workers learn while at home. At this point, they’re forced to redesign their current offerings from face-to-face to digital at a distance. Although there are many pitfalls (redesign from in-person to virtual requires a careful design process), we thought it might be helpful to give some tips & tricks. Wilfred Rubens, a friend / colleague has recently written some useful blogs in Dutch and has kindly agreed to allow us to translate them to English. They’re all based on the book ‘Wijze lessen. Twaalf bouwstenen voor effectieve didactiek’ (‘Lessons for Learning: 12 Building Blocks for Effective Teaching’ which is at this very moment being translated into English), written by Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen, Dominique Sluijsmans, Gino Kamp, Daniel Muijs and Paul A. Kirschner.

wijze lessenIn the book, Surma and his co-authors, discuss how to teach effectively using twelve evidence-informed instruction principles. Wilfred saw an opportunity to elaborate on the building blocks by teasing out the relationship between each building block and learning technologies. He published 12 blogs – one for each building block – in which he explained how learning technologies can be used to facilitate and strengthen the relevant building block (you can find the original blogs here).[1]


This is the fourth one. Stay tuned for more! We (Mirjam and Paul), together with ExCEL’s – the Expertise Centre for Effective Learning (of which Paul A. Kirschner is guest professor) Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen (researchers at ExCEL and also authors of the book), and Tine Hoof (also a researcher of ExCEL), we’re working hard to translate the next 9 building blocks, and how learning technology can strengthen them, ito English.

Surma and his co-authors state:

When you start practising new subject matter, you can remember better when you spread out practice over time; across various short practice sessions [e.g., see Paul and Mirjam’s blog on spaced learning], compared to a massed practice session.

Learners often procrastinate, waiting until the last minute when it comes studying for a test or exam. As the deadline approaches, they quickly try to cram all the subject matter into their heads. Then, after they’ve completed the test, all that they’ve studied and learnt slips away into oblivion. I [Wilfred Rubens] was exactly like that when I was a student.

Whatever you need to learn, you simply remember it better in the long-term if you spread out practising/studying it in shorter spurts over time. Tim Surma and his colleagues explain that there are also certain rules when it comes to the time between the initial learning and the intermittent practice moments. Also, practice shouldn’t be too close to the actual summative test or exam (they say there should be a minimum of two days between the last practice and the actual test).

Of course, you can also use learning technology to facilitate ‘spaced retrieval practice’. In the book chapter, the authors dedicate a paragraph to this (‘Software supports spaced retrieval practice’). In previous blogs [for example the blog on Building Block 1 and the one on Building Block 5], I [Wilfred] have discussed tools for quizzes, learner response systems, tools to reinforce online videos with quiz questions, and flash cards. These can all be used to support spaced retrieval practice. Also, within online content (for example, as developed within H5P), you can use ‘spaced retrieval practice’. Even better, you can incorporate spaced practice explicitly in a digital environment within the structure of a course or module.

A pitfall is that spaced practice is interpreted as ‘ask questions about subject matter that has just been discussed’ instead of focusing on the retrieval of topics or concepts that were discussed days, weeks, and/or even months ago. Asking questions on subject matter that has just been discussed is part of ‘actively processing subject matter’ [Building Block 5] and not ‘spaced retrieval practice’.

Long story short, when you want to apply spaced retrieval practice, you definitely also need to build in questions on previously (e.g., last month, last week) discussed subject matter.