Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen
Repeatedly retrieving knowledge from long term memory strengthens memory traces so that we learn more effectively. The question is, how can you best (help to) spread learning to facilitate this?
Note 1: In this blog, the tips and tricks are described mostly from an ‘instructor’s or teacher’s perspective. However, keep in mind that you can apply these to your own learning just as well.
This is what it comes down to: Tackling learning in various short sessions works better than learning that same thing in one long session. You can help learners plan their learning (and this applies to anything such as facts they need to remember, concepts they need to understand and apply, skills they need to acquire and practice, or whatever else they need to learn) by using assignments judiciously and, as teacher / instructor, should also spread practice tests as well as more summative assessments carefully.
Note 2: To make the point in note 1 clear: When you apply this piece of advice to your own learning it would translate as in ‘Plan your learning sessions and test yourself regularly (e.g., through questioning or explaining). You’ll hopefully now be getting the point on how to apply the tips and tricks to your own learning for the remainder of this blog.
As a teacher, while walking around the classroom, you might notice that your students are working a way, diligently highlighting or underlining parts of a text that you’ve given them or in other instances, they’re rereading certain pages or paragraphs of a text assigned to them. In other words, they seem to be studying hard and seem to be engaged in what they’re doing (for a discussion of why engagement is a poor proxy for or indicator of learning click here and here). The problem with this is that though they’re busy / engaged, they’re busy with and engaged in strategies that often have been proven to be highly ineffective (see our blog on top and flop learning strategies). In other words, though they might be ‘busy’ or ‘engaged’, they’re basically wasting a lot of their time and effort. There are multiple studies that have shown that these techniques are neither effective nor efficient, however, they’re still the ‘go to’ strategy propagated by both teachers and parents.
On the flip side, there are a number of learning strategies that have proven to work really well, but which are hardly used or promoted. One example of such an effective learning strategy is spaced learning (also called spaced practice or distributed practice).
No, not this type of spaced practice:
With spaced practice, the learner divides the knowledge or skills that need to be learned or practiced in chunks and learns them by practicing them in a number of short sessions instead of in one long one (cramming).
There are several explanations why spaced learning is so effective, especially when it comes to remembering something you’ve learned or using skills over a long period of time. One theory argues that a series of short sessions force you to retrieve the previous learned ‘stuff’ from your long-term memory over and over again and because of this, the memory traces become stronger over time. Within one long session this repeatedly ‘remembering’ doesn’t happen as you’re not triggering the brain to do so. From this perspective, spaced practice is similar to retrieval practice – another proven effective learning strategy – through which you intentionally retrieve information that you need from your memory repeatedly over time, for example through quizzes, making summaries, self-testing, et cetera.
No, not this retrieval practice:
This retrieval practice:
Another explanation why spaced learning is so effective is because you’re probably learning in different/various contexts and this is better because you associate what you’re learning to the different circumstances under which you learn it. This is what Whiffen and Karpicke call the episodic context of learning which holds that learning in different contexts (it could be places, for different types of tests, activities, or people) facilitates / enhances subsequent retention because people must think back to and reinstate a prior learning context. differently each time. Tackling whatever you need to learn in various ways promotes remembering and applying of knowledge and skills because you have ‘recorded’ it in a slightly different way each time and this makes your knowledge and/or skills more flexible. Although it might seem that spaced learning takes more time, and this might be the case in the short-term, it actually improves your learning and you’ll remember what you’ve learned a lot longer.
How can you help learners to apply spaced learning effectively? Of course, it all starts with planning, which is something that (most) learners are extremely bad at. So, for you as instructors / teachers it’s all about making sure that your students don’t push back (delay) their learning until the very last moment because then the only option left is ineffective cramming. You can help them, for example, by giving them short practice assignments, spread over time, which forces them to repeat what they need to learn over and over again. Another trick is to ensure that they pause of at least a day and preferably two between the first and the second learning or practice session. So, help them plan their work so that it allows for variety and breaks between learning sessions.
A second way to encourage spaced learning is to give each assignment the same weight. This of course doesn’t go for more formal exams (although we sometimes have to wonder to what extent these are needed to test if the learner masters what needs to be learned through a series of shorter exams – which should be the point, after all?). More, yet smaller, tests that don’t only test new learning but also encourage / force learners to retrieve and make use of previously learned stuff is more effective for learning than big exams, which by the way also invite learners to just ‘cram’ for it. Whenever learners are required to complete a variety of smaller tests, they automatically need to apply spaced learning, which is, surprise surprise, exactly what we’re looking for.
Another key recommendation is to ensure variety in practice exercises. For example, learners one day might be asked to write a summary, while a day or two later, they are asked to complete a knowledge test or quiz. This is also called interleaving, which refers to alternating between topics and subjects when studying. There’s a well-known English expression that says: variety is the spice of life. This also goes for learning.
Last but not least, it’s critical to tune or synchronise (practice) tests with your colleagues. This is most likely not very easy but it’s extremely critical! If you want learners to apply spaced learning, a pile of tests on the same day or three tests in the same week is not going to help them do this. Learners will always prioritise tomorrow’s test over one that is next week and who can blame them?
P.S. All posters are available through learningscientists.org here.
More recommended reading:
Firth, J. (n.d.) Spacing in Teaching Practice [blog].
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, N. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14(1), 4-58.
Kang, S. H. (2016). Spaced repetition promotes efficient and effective learning: Policy implications for instruction. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 3(1), 12-19.
 The episodic context is based upon the following four principles: (1) People encode information about items and the temporal/episodic context in which those items occurred. (2) During retrieval, people attempt to reinstate the episodic context associated with an item as part of a memory search process. (3) When an item is successfully retrieved, the context representation associated with that item is updated to include features of the original study context and features of the present test context. (4) When people attempt to retrieve items again on a later test, the updated context representations aid in recovery of those items, and memory performance is improved (Whiffen & Karpicke, 2017).