Research Bites: Spaced Practice

22 March 2018

Author: Shaun Allison

research bites

What is it?

Spaced practice (or ‘spacing’ or ‘distributed practice’) involves repeatedly coming back to information that we are learning in various short sessions, spaced out over time, rather than cramming in a long intense period.

What does the evidence say?

forgetting curveIn 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus ran a limited study (on himself) where he taught himself nonsense syllables and then tested himself on them days after the initital exposure to them, recorded how many he remembered, reviewed them again and then repeated the process over time.  This resulted in the now-quite-famous ‘Ebbinghaus forgetting curve’ (see above).  Essentially this suggested that spacing out the reviews, with an increasing gap between them, helped him to remember the syllables. This has been replicated more recently.

By allowing ourselves to forget and then having to retrieve that information from our memory, we are strengthening that memory.  In the words of Daniel Willingham:

Memory is the residue of thought”

How can teachers mobilise this evidence?

  • Plan opportunities to revisit previously studied topics in lessons.  You can read about how one maths teacher has done this here.
  • Set homeworks that ask students questions about what they have been doing recently, but also have sections on topics that have been studied previously.
  • Use low stake quizzes at the start of the lesson that require students to retrieve information from last lesson, last month and last term.
  • When encourage students to devise their own revision plan for your subject, make sure they space out the topics, leading up to the exam.  A blank revision calendar will help with this.
  • Plan the curriculum so that you return to topics over time.

Further Reading

Learn how to study using spaced practice – The Learning scientists

Tips and tricks for spaced learning – Paul Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen

Improving students learning with effective learning techniques – Dunlosky et al

Making spaced practice count

The benefits of spaced practice in the classroom – Megan Smith



Posted on 22 March 2018
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