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  • by Blaine Helwig

Spaced Repetition!  A Game Changer in Student Learning

This short passage should have a different title than ‘spaced repetition.’ A more appropriate title may be ‘Elusive Obvious in Learning.’ I had never heard the phrase ‘spaced repetition’ until I was reading a book called, “Forever Fluent” on learning new languages. In college, I discovered that I did not retain information when ‘cramming’ for an examination the night before in comparison to assessments that I prepared days prior – much more slowly and deliberately. Of course, that is the common sense version of spaced repetition learning that every college student discovers at some point over four years of study.

I urge educators to read this somewhat boring blog/essay due to its importance in student learning and instructional effectiveness. I have seen spaced repetition pragmatically implemented in three urban Title 1 schools with typical challenging student demographics, and it produced three top rated elementary schools in State accountability ratings and two of the schools were selected as National Blue Ribbon Schools as well as National Blue Ribbon Profile Schools for academic excellence.

What is ‘Spaced Repetition’ and why should we care whether we are teachers or not?

The concept of spaced repetition has been around a long time. The idea was first proposed by Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885, and there has been a lot of research on the subject since. Space repetition basically says the following with regard to learning: increasing intervals of review and practice increase the person’s ability to retain the material. So, without question, no matter what we are trying to learn, if we space out the interval of review or study, we retain information for longer periods of time.

Let’s look at three key points on spaced repetition from a white paper by Sean H. K. Kang, Department of Education, Dartmouth College:

  • Practice and repetition is more effective when spaced over days compared to learning material the same amount of practice in one sitting.

  • The instructional timing and arrangement of the review is important, and it positively affects student learning and outcomes.

  • Interval practice positively affects memory, problem solving and transfer of learning to new contexts.

What are the pragmatic implications in pedagogy and instructional design?

If it is the case that humans retain learned content that is presented repeatedly in discrete chunks over time, then what can or should be done to improve student learning outcomes in instructional design and the pedagogy of daily lessons in public schools?

  1. A short daily review process should be implemented especially in math, grammar and science to ensure that students have sufficient practice over time so the skill content is mastered.

  2. Teachers and administrators should seek and implement instructional resources that have an embedded spiraling curriculum.

  3. Teachers should have a readily prepared review on prior content in the event that a daily lesson ends early and students may be refreshed on previously learned material.

  4. Teachers should be specific on curriculum and skill content that is relatively more important so students are exposed to that higher valued material more often during the spaced repetition process.

  5. Teachers should incorporate dynamic reviews of the material so students are not bored with the repetition.

  6. Teachers should assess students in periodic intervals to evaluate student mastery and vary the content review, as needed.


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