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The benefits of combining Retrieval Practice and Spacing

The benefits of combining Retrieval Practice and Spacing

4 min read
  • Retrieval Practice
  • Spacing & Interleaving

Often, students end up procrastinating when it comes to their revision. One of the many reasons for this: they don’t know where to start.

This leads to hours of wasted time staring at a blank screen, which only causes them more stress. As a consequence of this, many students try to cram all the information they need at the last minute. Luckily, researchers have found that combining two of the most effective learning strategies, retrieval practice and spacing, can have serious benefits in remembering the information. 

We have previously looked at some of the benefits that combining these two effective learning techniques has for students’ memory, with previous research finding a 13% increase in grades when using this method. However, a recent large scale review has explored the effect of using these two revision strategies together in more depth. 

So, let’s recap what these learning strategies are, and what the review says about them…

What is Retrieval Practice?

Retrieval practice is the process of generating an answer to a question. This is an effective technique as it requires students to recall previously-learnt knowledge. This helps create stronger memory traces and increases the likelihood that the information will be transferred to long-term memory.

Research shows that one of the most effective ways to use this technique is to make retrieval practice effortful and provide feedback (for example, by having access to the answers). Students can use this technique in many ways including: 

  • Testing themselves using flashcards
  • Completing practice tests
  • Verbally answering questions

What is Spacing?

Spacing is the process of spreading out studying over time. It involves learning little information regularly, rather than learning a lot in one go. One of the main reasons why this technique works is that by spacing out revision, students have time to forget things, and re-learn them the next time they revisit the information. Re-learning is key to strengthening memory and makes it more likely that the information will be remembered in the long term.

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How to combine Retrieval Practice and Spacing

Combining these two learning techniques involves spreading out the use of Retrieval Practice over several sessions.

One example could be to study using flashcards until all the information has been remembered, then repeat this once a certain amount of time has passed. The Leitner System, for example, is a brilliant way to do this – read more about it here.

What does the research say?

In the large scale review we mentioned earlier, the researchers investigated the benefits of using these two techniques based on 29 studies. They found a much greater memory advantage when students used spaced retrieval practice compared to using retrieval practice in one sitting. One reason for this is that spacing these sessions out allows memory traces to be reactivated, making it more likely that the information goes into students’ long-term memory.

Many students want to space out their revision but don’t know how long the gaps between each study session should be. There are two main types of spacing schedule they can use: 

  • Uniform spacing schedule – The gap between sessions stays the same.
  • Expanding spacing schedule – This type of spacing requires increasing the gap between each study session as time goes on. 

But is one better than the other? Well, in the review they found no difference between using an expanding gap compared to using a uniform gap. However, the researchers did suggest that using an expanding gap for harder tasks might be better. In another study, researchers also said that the further away the test is, the longer the gaps between the sessions should be. Therefore, although expanding spacing schedules may be useful, it seems that more research is needed to determine this. 

Final thoughts

Revision can be very difficult, and often students struggle to find out which studying techniques they should use. However, research suggests that combining two of the most effective studying techniques by spacing out retrieval practice can be very beneficial in helping students remember the information. They can do this in many ways, including making flashcards and keeping a note in their diary to remind themselves when their next study session is.

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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