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What is the Spacing Effect?

What is the Spacing Effect?

5 min read
  • Spacing & Interleaving

Students forget a lot more information a lot faster than we may think. So, is there a learning strategy that counteracts this and helps with long-term retention?

The short answer is yes – and it’s called the Spacing Effect. At its core, it relies on revisiting information multiple times over a long period of time. In short, it consists in studying little but often as opposed to a lot all at once.

So, let’s delve into the long answer and explore:

  • What the Spacing Effect is
  • The neuroscience behind the Spacing Effect
  • The benefits of the Spacing Effect
  • Steps to using the Spacing Effect
  • Tips to optimise Spacing

What is the Spacing Effect?

Spacing, sometimes referred to as “Distributed Practice” or “Spaced Learning”, is a learning strategy that involves breaking up studying into shorter and more frequent sessions over a longer period of time.

This is the opposite of student-favourite cramming, where students engage in intense and prolonged studying within a short time frame. Research has shown that using Spacing instead of cramming can result in a 10% to 30% difference in final test results – making it a very attractive technique for students.

It was first detailed in 1885 by German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus, who explored the “forgetting curve” and demonstrated the power of Spacing for retaining information.

The forgetting curve illustrates that without reinforcement, our memory of new information declines over time. However, each time we review or study the information, the curve is “reset” and becomes less steep each time, slowing down the rate of forgetting. This is where the Spacing Effect comes in: by strategically spacing out study sessions, your students are shortening the forgetting curve each time, embedding information deeper into their long-term memory.

The neuroscience behind the Spacing Effect

When we engage in Distributed Practice, our brain undergoes a process known as memory consolidation. This involves the strengthening of synaptic connections between neurons, which is crucial for the formation and retrieval of memories.

When we’re learning, new information activates specific neural pathways in the brain. However, these connections are initially fragile and easily disrupted. When we review the same information after a short period of time, these pathways are reactivated, reinforcing the neural connections and making them stronger. This process, called synaptic plasticity, is believed to be a key mechanism underlying the Spacing Effect.

Furthermore, research has shown that Spacing activates various brain regions involved in memory, such as the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. These regions play vital roles in encoding, storing and retrieving information.

The 3 learning benefits of Spacing

Now that we understand how Spacing works, it’s also important that we enlighten students about its benefits for their learning. Some benefits of Spacing to explain to your students include:

1. Improving long-term retention

By spacing out study sessions, students encode and consolidate information into their long-term memory. Research shows that this leads to improved retention and recall of knowledge.

2. Enhancing Retrieval Practice

Engaging in repeated Retrieval Practice during spaced study sessions strengthens memory recall and promotes deeper learning. Regularly reviewing material enhances information accessibility and improves resistance to forgetting.

3. Reducing cognitive load

By breaking up study sessions into smaller chunks, your students can focus on a specific topic or concept without becoming overwhelmed by too much information at once. This reduces their cognitive load and allows them to process information more effectively.

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3 steps for students to use Spacing independently

There are many ways for you to facilitate your students’ use of Spacing – but ultimately, most of it will happen in their independent study time. So, how can you help them get the most out of Spacing unsupervised? Share the following three steps with them…

Step 1: Plan and prioritise

Students should start by mapping out what they are going to revise and when, using a study schedule that incorporates regular spaced study sessions for each topic. You can help your students create this in class. Research suggests that this approach ensures that revision is spread out effectively over time.

It’s also important at this stage to identify the most critical concepts, pieces of information and skills that will require more frequent review and practice. This may also help students identify areas that need more focus. These should be allocated more study time and spaced out more frequently throughout their revision schedule.

Step 2: Chunk information

Breaking down the content into smaller, manageable chunks to study during each session will help prevent students from getting overwhelmed by the amount of information to study, and allows for focused, targeted learning.

Research has also shown that chunking helps enhance memory capacity due to the nature of grouping concepts together. This allows for meaningful connections to be made, making information faster to recall from memory.

Step 3: Mix and match concepts

Rather than focusing on a single concept for an extended period, students should alternate between different concepts during their study sessions to get the benefit from the Spacing Effect. This approach, known as Interleaving, improves their ability to identify patterns and make connections between concepts.

By challenging their brain to switch gears and adapt to different subjects, they will develop a more comprehensive understanding of the material.

3 ways to avoid common Spacing mistakes

While Spacing is an incredibly effective learning technique, it is important to acknowledge some factors that can influence its efficiency, such as:

1. Time your spaced schedule wisely

Optimal Spacing occurs when study sessions are strategically spaced out. Research indicates that longer intervals between sessions generally result in better retention. Students should avoid scheduling sessions too closely together and allow for adequate time intervals between each session. There isn’t an ideal time gap for Spacing – but as a rule of thumb, the longer students want to remember the information for, the further apart the study sessions should be.

2. Utilise spaced repetition apps

To enhance the advantages of Spacing, consider utilising spaced repetition apps. Apps like Quizlet or Memrise are specifically designed to implement the principles of Distributed Practice.

Additionally, students can leverage AI apps to further improve their Spacing revision strategies. With features such as intelligent scheduling, adaptive flashcards, active recall promotion or performance analysis, AI apps provide valuable tools for optimising Spacing as an effective revision method.

However, it is worth noting that we are in the early stages of AI in education. If you go down this route, do so cautiously and carefully. There are many great ways for students to use AI in the classroom, but keeping an eye on the latest research and guidelines may be wise.

3. Take regular study breaks

During each study session, students should incorporate regular breaks to allow their brain to rest and process the information. These short breaks help maintain focus and prevent mental fatigue, enabling better retention and understanding of the material. For more tips for your students to get the most out of their revision, check out our complete guide to effective study skills.

Final thoughts

Helping your students prioritise effective study habits and make the most out of their limited revision time is crucial for their success. Spacing has emerged as an effective method for students to optimise their learning without overwhelming them any further.

So, whether it’s preparing for exams, mastering new skills or expanding their knowledge, incorporating Spaced Learning techniques can be a game changer in your students’ pursuit of academic excellence.

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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