‘Spaced-Learning’ and the forgetting curve

spaced-learning-1The idea that we lose knowledge over time is nothing new to the research stream of learners and learning.  In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus created a formula for the exponential rate of ‘forgetting’ – as time moves forward we forget what we have learned. However, by repeatedly practising these skills, or refreshing our memory intermittently over time, we can increase the percentage of information remembered. There are of course variables, such as, the relative strength of memory – but as teachers this is something we are only acutely aware of in our everyday practice anyway.

It then seems crazy when we compare this stream of research (for which there is much) to how we teach in schools today. The trend of learning seems to be similar across most subjects and schools – teach a module, test a module, (record test result to demonstrate progress), move onto the next module. This process tends to be repeated (minus a few mock exams) until Easter prior to the examination period when we all suddenly start revising with gusto.

When considering writing the new specifications surely we should be reducing our emphasis on modular learning, and beginning to focus more on continuous themes of learning. The exam boards are trying to improve the clarity of command words and become clearer in the expectations of the students. We need to use this to our advantage and train the students – slowly and over time – as to how to answer exam questions and build up their content knowledge. This is the perfect time to introduce ‘spaced-learning’ into the schemes of work.

The concept of ‘spaced-learning’ is to continually refer back to previous material to ‘top-up’ and keep on top of the students learning, thus limiting the amount of forgetting.spaced-learning-2

So how do we implement ‘spaced-learning’ without rocking the boat?

I will be introducing this concept to my year 10 GCSE classes. Every third week (10th lesson) I will leave the SOW and interject with a random exam-focussed lesson. It will be random in the sense that it could be from any ‘module’ we have studied. However, it will also be carefully planned to help develop the general skills required for the exams focussing heavily on the higher valued command words – assess, evaluate, analyse, justify etc.

I have done this previously by presenting the exam question; think-pair-share to decipher the requirements of the question and develop a structure/plan. Students then used any resources they wished to help build up their knowledge; working in groups on poster paper. Students prompted to focus on the command word and develop their higher order thinking as a group. Finally, the students write the answer in full individually to be peer assessed.

Other ideas to develop ‘spaced-learning’:

There will be so many techniques used in the classroom already. The concept it to ensure these techniques are spaced out over-time, or repeated intermittently.

  • Kahoot quiz’s (could be re-used over time)
  • Google classroom tests; so no teacher marking is required. Again these could be repeated intermittently over-time (a great way to demonstrate progress).
  • Home learning past paper questions from previous ‘modules’.
  • Student workbook with questions and tasks with various due dates to forward plan the ‘spaced-learning’.
  • Stick in questions or tasks during the course of teaching to be left and reviewed in a few weeks/months’ time.
  • Peer/self-assess tasks a few weeks/ months after they have been completed by students.
  • Setting a weekly ‘review-style’ home learning task consolidating the content of the week.
  • Delay student response to teacher marking. Students could reply to detailed teacher questions 2-3 weeks after completing the work, therefore allowing them to stretch their memory.

The general idea is to ensure we are continuously reviewing concepts and ideas to slow the rate of forgetting. During a busy teaching schedule and with tight deadlines to complete units of work it can be tough to make time for this type of learning. However, it is important to note that the literature points heavily towards the benefits of ‘spaced-learning’.

This is something I am beginning to implement with my exam classes… I will let you know how it progresses. If you have any other ideas for how to implement this in the classroom please let me know – I’d love to have more ideas.

Megan Anderson



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