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The effect of combining Retrieval Practice and Spacing

The effect of combining Retrieval Practice and Spacing

5 min read
  • Retrieval Practice
  • Spacing & Interleaving

An abundance of research has highlighted Retrieval Practice and spacing as two of the most effective learning strategies for improving students’ memory recall. However, they are often viewed as two separate strategies and not used in tandem. 

But what happens when you combine the two? Is each strategy more effective on their own, or is two really better than one? To find out, we went through the recent research  on ‘successive relearning’ to see what the answers are.

What is Successive Relearning?

Successive relearning can be defined as the combination of two effective learning techniques: Retrieval Practice and spacing. It involves spacing out the use of Retrieval Practice techniques on several occasions over time, until a certain level of mastery has been achieved (I.e. correctly retrieved from memory multiple times).

For example, students could revise using flashcards until each of the items of information they want to learn have been successfully retrieved from memory at least once, and then repeat this revision strategy on several different occasions. This is because students forget the majority of information they have previously learnt between study sessions. Successive relearning ensures students relearn content and maintain the ability to correctly retrieve this information. 

Although successive relearning and spacing are similar, they are not the same. This is a classic square/rectangle effect: all successive relearning involves spacing, but not all spaced learning meets the criteria for successive learning. Simply combining Retrieval Practice with spacing doesn’t necessarily lead to successive relearning. It’s about practising retrieval frequently over a period of time.

What does the research say?

Most research into spaced learning primarily focuses on how much time you should leave between different revision materials within a session (interleaving) and between different revision sessions (spacing). Research has rarely looked at how you should be revising when you space your learning. 

A recent study investigated the effect of successive relearning on academic performance. University students studying a biopsychology course were allowed to earn homework credit by engaging in successive relearning strategies for their course material. The students were given virtual flashcards that contained four to six items of information from five to-be-learned topics. 

Depending on the topic, the students were given a homework schedule detailing when they should complete each stack of flashcards. Within each stack, students engaged in three different types of Retrieval Practice:

  • Key-term definitions 
  • Labelling key parts of an image (i.e. the different parts of the brain)
  • Retrieving information about a sequential process (i.e. how neurotransmission takes place). 

The students then had to sit an exam on the topics they had been revising. The results showed a 13% increase in grades when compared to grades from the prior semester and to the students who did not take part in the successive relearning program. Although the study used university students, these results can still apply to other educational contexts. 

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Practical implications

When it comes to instructional teaching and students’ revision, we want to ensure that the learning strategies we’re using are both efficient and effective. Teachers don’t have the time to keep re-teaching the same material, and students can’t waste time trying to learn things over and over again. It also helps by:

  • Stopping students cramming all their revision practice into one session.
  • Resulting in less learner fatigue.
  • Retaining memorised information over a longer period of time. 

So how can successive relearning programs be implemented? 

Set homework assignments

Set your students regular homework assignments that include tasks such as completing past papers, essays under exam conditions, or making flashcards to summarise their learning for the week. By regularly setting deadlines, your students will be in a good place for revision by the time exam season rolls around. 

However, make sure not to set too much homework as this can cause students to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and consequently negatively impact their learning. Setting an assignment once a week is a good place to start as it allows students to reflect on what they have learnt. 

Use the right tools

Students should use flashcards, which are a great but underused way to practise retrieving key information that is relevant to their exam, rather than generic questions about a topic. Students can either use flashcards that are tailored to their weak spots, or that other people have made. 

To ensure successive re-learning, students should reflect and check if they answered correctly or incorrectly. If they got the answer wrong, they should make a note of it, and return to it later in the session. 

Quizlet is a great website for students wanting to practise retrieving information. It’s easily accessible, free to use, and includes both quizzes and flashcards that can be printed off if the student would prefer to work with pen or paper. 

Use the Cornell Note Taking Method

When using the Cornell Note Taking Method, students write down key terms in the margins of their note sheet that applies to the to-be-learned topic. To practise retrieval, students should ask themselves specific questions about the course content or attempt to learn each key word through retrieval (i.e. recall the definition of the key word from memory). 

Students can refer back to their note sheet throughout the semester to practise relearning the key terms until all retrieval attempts are successful. By relearning previously forgotten information, memory recall is enhanced

Other research has shown that people who used the successive relearning strategy over a 56-day period could remember more than 75% of the information after a year and 60% of the information after five years.

The challenges of successive relearning

However, like with all learning strategies, certain barriers could limit the effectiveness of successive relearning:

  • It can require a lot of time and effort to make the flashcards before Retrieval Practice can even take place.
  • Some students may not have access to the internet at home to access virtual flashcards.
  • Students may prefer to stick to the learning strategies they know rather than try one that is new and quite complex, and may need persuading.
  • Students may try to overlearn content in a single session rather than just stopping after one successful retrieval attempt of each item.

Final thoughts

Spacing and Retrieval Practice have both been shown to be effective learning strategies on their own. However, recent research has highlighted that spacing out Retrieval Practice can be even more effective. This is so students can keep practising learning information that they may have forgotten between their revision session until they remember all the content. 

For more tips on how to boost memory recall, check out our blogs on the power of effective revision, how students should use Retrieval Practice effectively in their revision and what links spacing, interleaving and Cognitive Load Theory together.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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