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Spacing benefits all students

Spacing benefits primary, secondary, university and mature students

6 min read
  • Spacing & Interleaving

There are two ‘Eff’ words we permit in classrooms – efficiency and effectiveness; the former begets the latter, and the latter is, to quote Peter Drucker, “doing the right things”. Use of research evidence in education helps underpin our instincts as teachers, supporting us with indications of what has worked before and therefore allowing us to determine what might work again, after we have crafted and honed it for our individual settings and contexts – one size fits one.

When we plan lessons, we are trying to anticipate what might happen – a plan is not a determinant of what will happen; therefore, it makes sense to plan with efficiency and effectiveness in mind – doing the right things at the right time.

Our aim is to reduce the extraneous and unnecessary noise around what we want students to learn and look to, as Peps Mccrea states “amplify the signal”. Students’ attention is the gateway to their cognitive processing and therefore their learning, which echoes what Herbet A. Simon says: “Learning results from what the student does and thinks and only from what the student does and thinks. The teacher can advance learning only by influencing what the student does to learn”. We need to work according to Occam’s Law, with the simplest answer being the best: simplicity is found by doing the right things.

Meet the author

Henry Sauntson

Henry Sauntson is the Director of Teach East SCITT. In addition to his interest in developing evidence-informed, autonomous practitioners, Henry contributes to many education publications, facilitates NPQ and ECF sessions, and designs and delivers CPD for local schools. He is the author of Essential Guides for Early Career Teachers: Understanding your Role in Curriculum Design and Implementation.

The wonderful work of Erfat Furst

I recently discovered – via the excellent work of Efrat Furst – a very recently released research review called The Science of Effective Learning with Spacing and Retrieval Practice. The paper reminds us that “effective learning skills are critical for navigating an increasingly complex world” and goes on to investigate the evidence behind the two strategies in a range of domains across the lifespan of a learner, throwing up, as they state, “important implications for the increasingly common situations in which the learners must effectively monitor and regulate their own learning”.

What are Spaced Learning and Retrieval Practice?

Let us start with the strategies themselves, defined here by the EEF:

  • Spaced Learning – distributing learning and retrieval opportunities over a longer period of time rather than concentrating them in massed practice;
  • Retrieval Practice – using a variety of strategies to recall information from memory, for example flash cards, practice tests or quizzing, or mind mapping.

The researchers of the aforementioned study see spacing as “when to engage in learning” and retrieval as part of a plan for “how to learn effectively”. They go on to tell us that, in order for students to build sturdy, durable knowledge, they have to “repeatedly study and use the information that they are trying to learn”. The timing of this is vital, but often not considered significantly enough as “repeated practice opportunities that are spaced apart in time are more effective than the same number of practice opportunities that occur closer together”.

What the study found: Retrieval and Spacing can help regardless of age

Interestingly, the review considers numerous domains in which learning occurs, from EYFS learning basic concepts to adults learning new skills and knowledge. The authors present a selection of studies showing statistically significant effects of Spacing as a practice, across the lifespan of learning, and – more importantly – the materials used for learning and the implementation of the spaced approach.

For example, they found that:

  • Key Stage 1 students (5-7) learning basic scientific principles benefitted hugely from a spaced approach of one lesson a day across 4 days when compared to their peers who received a clumped or massed approach;
  • Key Stage 3 students evaluating websites were more effective learners if their lessons were scheduled a week apart as opposed to a day apart;
  • Postgraduate students working on surgical procedures showed better performance and deeper learning when their training sessions were a week apart.
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Implications for teachers and educators

So, what does this mean for educators? Well, as the authors of the research state, “it is not possible to anticipate the perfect spacing schedule”; however, it is important for us to know how and why as well as what – we don’t just make changes to our existing practice just for the sake of it or because research tells us to – we have to have a reason, a goal, formed out of critical engagement with the evidence.

The authors posit that the extra time between learning experiences could enhance learning by “providing a mental break that encourages more effective attention”, and that Spacing “creates distinct learning experiences with unique contextual features” that can serve as cues for memory and therefore retrieval. They remind us that Spacing also increases the need for students to retrieve information from previous sessions, “engaging the benefits of Retrieval Practice”. What we can learn is that, even with a single strategy, there is no “right” spacing, and that all subject domains benefit from different intervals.

We also see how, as with all things in education, things that might work well in isolation are far more effective when they work in harmonic collaboration with others; combining Spacing with retrieval, for example. The authors place emphasis on the need for students to be more aware of what they need for effective learning and develop routines that allow them to achieve learning goals – “knowledge of the right strategies at the right time”.

They key action here is for educators to ensure that important curriculum content – in particular, those essential concepts from which connections stem – is reviewed and revisited; delayed review has a large positive impact on the amount of material that can be remembered later.

Practically, we need to be sure we have enough spacing, and not to worry about having too much. Finding space for Spacing isn’t hard either – build review into the daily diet of the classroom through simple techniques like “Last Term, Last Month, Last Week” questions, explicitly narrating connections to previous material, well-judged retrieval; consider also the power of homework as a tool for creating more space in the taught curriculum – students can review and consolidate previously taught material at home, providing it is followed up in classrooms.

Above all, students need to know why they are always reviewing material and why it is okay to forget. It may be that as teachers, we see substantial forgetting at the outset of a spacing approach, but instead of being discouraged, research has shown that reawakening the taught knowledge through retrieval and review is more easily accomplished than the original learning was, and that the final result is a marked reduction in the rate of forgetting.

Final thoughts

By using Spacing, we can not only repair the forgetting that might have happened since initial learning, but we can, to some extent, inoculate against any subsequent forgetting also. The past isn’t a foreign country, and things weren’t always done differently there…

If we instil effective study habits in our students (or, in my case, student teachers) early on we allow for time for routines to develop, thereby reducing the need for extensive weeding of the thought garden later on in the sequence. To paraphrase C.S Lewis: don’t cut down the forest, irrigate the desert.

Finding space to space, and time to space – that’s a continuum, isn’t it?…

This blog was written by Henry Sauntson. Henry is the is the Director of Teach East SCITT. If you don’t already, you should follow him on Twitter, where he shares his thoughts on education and research, as well as his brilliant array of colourful socks.