Spaced learning

Structure your classes to include repetition and active breaks of 10 minutes to support long-term memory formation.

Spaced learning is an intense learning technique derived from neuroscientific studies on long-term memory formation.

The Spaced learning recipe consists of three memory activations separated by two 10-minute breaks. The same content (with slight variations) is repeated three times in the same session. Between each repetition is a 10-minute ‘distractor’ break in which students do an activity unrelated to the target content.

What could a Spaced Learning lesson look like? (1) The teacher presents key facts or information for 20-30 minutes. (2) Students are given a 10-minute active break. (3) Students review and recall the previously presented key facts/information. (4) Students are given a second 10-minute active break. (5) Students recall and apply the key facts/information. For the approach to work, it is believed that during the 10-minute breaks, the brain networks previously activated have to be inactive. Thus, rather than having a ‘free’ break, students complete a type of distractor activity. Something completely different that occupies their mind so they cannot go back to the previous learning (Kelley & Whatson, 2013). Possible activities could be drawing/pictionary, making models out of plaster, doing calisthenic exercises, going for a walk in nature, etc.

How does Spaced Learning work? Encoding information in long-term memory frequently happens when our brains are repeatedly stimulated with content and separated by time blocks without that content (stimuli). Repeated stimuli separated by time spaces without stimuli can lead to activation of genes which initiate protein production. These proteins then can strengthen sensitized synapses, triggering Long-Term Potentiation (LTP) and long-term memory (LTM) formation (Frey & Morris, 1997). One study found that the effect of a one-hour spaced learning lesson is equivalent to 4 months of traditional classroom learning (Kelley & Whatson, 2013).

So, rather than using more time to explain something to students, try to organise your class in 3 sections with 2 active breaks. To prepare the first block, think of the content you want to present, select it and imagine how you will present it. In the following section you should repeat pre-presented content but reflect on how to emphasize recalling (retrieving from the long term memory). Finally in your last section, focus on how to repeat content with the focus on application. Distractive breaks need to be structured, so you need to find activity (or two different) that will work for your students.

References

Boettcher, J., Klippgen, L., Mietzsch, S., Grube, F., Krebs, T., & Bergholz, R. et al. (2019). Spaced Education Improves the Retention of Laparoscopic Suturing Skills: A Randomized Controlled Study. European Journal Of Pediatric Surgery, 30(02), 193-200. doi: 10.1055/s-0039-1681022

Bloom, K. C., & Shuell, T. J. (1981). Effects of massed and distributed practice on the learning and retention of second-language vocabulary. The Journal of Educational Research, 74(4), 245-248.

Kelley, P., & Whatson, T. (2013). Making long-term memories in minutes: a spaced learning pattern from memory research in education. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 7, 589.

Ferguson, R., Barzilai, S., Ben-Zvi, D., Chinn, C.A., Herodotou, C., Hod, Y., Kali, Y., Kukulska-Hulme, A., Kupermintz, H., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Sagy, O., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2017). Innovating Pedagogy 2017: Open University Innovation Report 6. Milton Keynes: The Open University, UK.

Fields, R. D. (2005). Making memories stick. Scientific American, 292(2), 74-81.

Sapolsky, R. M. (2015). Stress and the brain: individual variability and the inverted-U. Nature neuroscience, 18(10), 1344.

Beardsley, M. 2020. Science of Learning Concepts for Teachers (Project Illuminated) (1st ed.). Retrieved from https://illuminated.pressbooks.com/

Weinstein, Y., Sumeracki, M., & Caviglioli, O. (2018). Understanding how we learn: A visual guide. Routledge.

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