Spaced Practice: A teacher's guide

Paul Main

How can you use spaced practice in your classroom to advance student outcomes?

What is Spaced Practice?

Spaced practice is one of the most effective study strategies, in which learners review the learning material over an extended time. This provides time for their minds to make connections between different concepts and ideas so the learners can build upon learning and easily recall the knowledge in future. How does spaced practice work?

The main purpose of the spaced repetitions is to give a chance to the learner to (nearly) forget the previous learning before revisiting the same material. It may sound like a bad idea, but forgetting something to remember leads to long-term retention of learning.

After having to almost forget something, a human brain works even harder to recall the same information. Spaced learning and effective retrieval practice offer a workout to the learners' brains each time they revisit the material.

When a person crams in frequent study sessions, all the knowledge is saved in his short-term memory (which he quickly forgets). The use of gaps between study sessions is an effective learning strategy that, allows the material to store in the pupil's long-term memory instead.

This is the main reason for spaced retrieval practice to work. Ultimately, the learners won’t need to work harder to recall the information leading to the intense period of learning —they will be able to recollect the information quickly from their long-term learning.

In the first few learning sessions, the learner's mind would be working hard to recall the information. As he revisits the information, it will become easier to recall and build upon.

What are the steps of using spaced practice?

Spaced repetition can practiced in the following four steps:

  1. Planning: Plan the regular intervals of study sessions;
  2. Study and review: The information must be studied and reviewed for the first time.
  3. Recalling: Recall the learned material at the first spacing interval.
  4. Continue to recall: The learning material must be recalled at adequate spacing intervals.

Cognitive science has seen a resurgence in recent years as curriculum content in schools has placed larger demands on memory. If your colleagues are interested in building robust knowledge as the basis for memory consolidation that you might be interested in learning about our graphic organisers and building block methodologies. Educators need to consider careful curriculum design when thinking about the retention of knowledge. Many of the schools we work with are thinking about the encoding process more carefully. As Daniel Willingham points out, memory is understanding in disguise.

Curriculum subjects are full of complex ideas and students now have to embrace the science of learning in order to remember the important information. The Education Endowment Foundation now hosts hundreds of studies in this field and our own repository of landmark research will prove a good starting point for any educator interested in effective study skills.

Structural Learning's Writers Block
Enhance the encoding process with our mental modelling method

What are the best ways to plan a spaced repetition schedule?

In secondary school classroom practices, establishing a spaced repetition learning schedule will help students better remember what they have learned. This will prepare children to build upon the knowledge being learned so they have a solid foundation for formal assessment and future classes.

  1. Planning frequent and short review sessions: Rather than trying to learn everything at once, short and regular study sessions are better for giving learners a chance to remember what they have understood and made new connections. These study sessions with spaced retrieval practice must be used throughout the year, not only at the study time for an upcoming test.
  2. Review for a longer duration: Rather than cramming the whole day in one or two study sessions, take out a little time to review the material each day. A learner may divide the learning material into smaller topics and complete each topic in a couple of weeks. He must switch between topics, with a longer gap between practice sessions, focusing on a specific topic.

Scheduling learning over time
Scheduling learning over time

For instance, if a learner starts to read a new unit in Science, a study session must be devoted to it. Then, the next day the same topic of Science must be reviewed again. Later on, he must wait for 3 days and review the Science topic once again. The pattern may change for each learner, but this is how a typical retrieval-based and spaced practice schedule might look:

Day 1: First session of study;

Day 2: Review & Revisit;

After 3 days: Review & Revisit;

After 1 week: Review & Revisit;

After 2 weeks: Review & Revisit.

It is recommended to review older material first and frequently receive assessment feedback from the teachers.

When a learner reads something from the most recent class, he must review and read the important information from the older class to keep it fresh in mind. With retrieval-based and spaced practice, it is better for the learning process to forget a little. Study becomes more effective when a child starts to study, nearly forget, and study again. The main purpose is to refresh what was learned in the last few training sessions. The harder a child's mind is challenged to remember past material, the better he would be able to recall in the future.

  1. Mix old information with new material: As a learner revisits previous material, he would be learning new information. It is a chance for a child to mix old and new concepts. While a child is reviewing and revisiting old material, he must be encouraged to think about how it connects with other topics of long-term learning.
  2. Preparing summary and checklist: In each spaced retrieval practice study session, a summary or checklist must be created. Whenever the child revisits the learning material, these checklists and summaries will jog his memory. By doing so, a child will be able to incorporate old information into the new one he has learned. It will also allow the child to keep on track with the increase in learning.
  3. Practice to Master Study Skills: One cannot deny the benefits from retrieval practice and spaced repetition. As a child makes a habit of using retrieval-based and spaced practice, he would be able to create a strong foundation for performing better on tests or in class.

Promote the encoding of information using graphic organisers
Promote the encoding of information using graphic organisers

What is Leitner System?

The Leitner system is one of the retrieval based educational practices involving a basic flashcard to perform spaced repetition. In the 1970s, a German Science journalist, Sebastian Leitner proposed 'The Leitner System for classrooms with flashcards involving the act of reviewing flashcards from a Leitner Box in extended intervals. For example:

Level 1: cards every day;

Level 2: cards every 2 days;

Level 3: cards every 4 days;

Level 4: cards every 8 days, and so on.

Utilising the leitner flash card method within spaced practice
Utilising the leitner flash card method within spaced practice

According to an independent study, providing students with retrieval opportunities through flashcard apps improve recall and retention. Flashcards are considered to be ideal for practising the foreign language vocabulary, retrieval of facts, terms, and concepts. For some topics, like foreign languages learning, some specialized flashcards apps will help learners through digital flashcards (e.g. Quizlet, Memrise ). Regular retrieval practice and spaced repetition are two of the most effective study techniques students may use but, manually planning retrieval-based and spaced practice can be very overwhelming. Flashcard apps and software provide an effective learning method and an ideal opportunity for the learners to recognise the sweet spot of optimal learning. Whenever a student's forgetfulness increases to a certain level, these flashcard apps pop up and bring their mind back on track.

There is no doubt in the effectiveness of retrieval practice and spaced learning. Clearly, the spaced regular retrieval practice is much better than cramming the learning material in just one study session. Learning and memory go hand in hand, and the main objective of every learner is to transfer the classroom material of learning into his long-term memory which leads to an increase In memory recall. When a learner can absorb the information better, he can build a deeper understanding and use these learned concepts in meaningful ways.