So, if you read my previous post about Retrieval Practice you will already know I have been focusing a lot of work on developing my own knowledge and sharing my findings on The Science of Learning. I am already a fan of retrieval practice and see how it can be used very successfully in Primary education. But what about Spacing? How can the idea of spreading learning and retrieval practice over time, allowing time for forgetting to happen, be implemented into the early years of education? And, most importantly, what does it look like?
Spaced practice basically takes a focused area of learning and spreads it out over time so students do not cover all of the content in one large chunk but space learning out over time with gaps in-between for forgetting. This, to both myself and any other teachers, can sound rather strange. Why would I want a child to forget what I have just spent a week teaching?
But if we focus very quickly on the ‘Forgetting Curve’, you can see that forgetting and then returning to an aspect of learning can have long-term gains to memory retention. Every time your students return to a specific skill, retention of learning improves and students forget less.
Spacing learning opportunities across multiple days, weeks and months leads to much higher achievement than studying the same amount of information all in one session.
Concepts are learned better when children are allowed to space their learning. They also understand how the knowledge or skills applies to different real-life situation or context. They can transfer skills to different settings because they have experienced the learning at different times and in different contexts and settings.
What is the bad news?
Learning through spacing can feel slow and sometimes ineffective. Particularly when you experience the forgetting first-hand as a teacher. 30 blank faces in class at the beginning of your third lesson on long-division can be disheartening, but stick with it! Spacing is more difficult in the short term, but it has long-term benefits. Children, themselves, need to embrace this too and become aware that forgetting is a good thing!
Using spacing can require a bit more planning – something I will cover in an article I have planned for a few weeks’ time. Teachers who wish to incorporate spacing into their classes might find it challenging at first to cover smaller portions of information across multiple days, or to incorporate previously taught concepts into current lessons. But it does not require major restructuring or overhauls to the curriculum. Planning just needs a few tweaks to the order of lessons and the knowledge that you may have to take a few steps back each time to take into account the forgetting. Embrace it!
How much spacing should there be between practice? This really depends on your class and what they are learning. For more challenging concepts and skills, regular practice is important. Once learners become more fluent, a longer time can be given before each practice. It is a bit like riding a bike. To start off with, you need to practice every day until you get more confident. You can then allow for more time before needing to practice again until eventually you can go years without any difficulties jumping on a bike again.
Simple Spacing Tip
Previous Learning to Current Practice
You may have moved your class learning on from previous objectives but try throwing in a few questions or challenges that require the use of previous knowledge. In Maths, ask students to retrieve and use their place value knowledge before applying it to their current addition challenge. In English, challenge students to recall vocabulary gathered in a previous unit that applies and can be used again in their new one.
Use the Leitner System
Develop a set of revision or question cards for a class or student to use to recall learning. Go through the questions. If they are confident answering the question, place it in the ‘once a week’ basket. If they need a bit of support, place it in the ‘twice a week pile’. Finally, if they need lots of support answering a question, place it in the ‘everyday pile’. Throughout the week, keep returning to these stacks of questions. By following the frequency of each stack, you automatically space the questions out based on confidence over the school week. Older students can take ownership of this process as they become confident with the system. Cards can then move between stacks based upon the fluency of the recall.
Technology and Schedules
Remote learning has meant that many teachers have relied on technology such as Seesaw and Century to set online tasks. Often, these activities and lessons can be scheduled in advance to automatically set students tasks that may have been planned a number of days or weeks before. By resetting activities for practice, you can allow students to recover content and practice learning automatically over time.
Yesterday, Last Week, Last Month
A great morning or starter activity is asking students to write down one thing they learned yesterday, last week and last month. This could be subject specific (just for maths) or can be kept broad. This can be challenging for students at first but, through discussion, students will be reminded of what they have previously covered. The more they do this activity, the better they will become at retrieval. Adding prompts to each can also support students in kick-starting their recall. Symbols and images may help spark the recall too!
I love the idea of spaced learning as long as it really does help with information retention like it is intended to do. My only fear is for students with different learning disabilities and how this could affect them. I also would like to know how you address this situation when there are students that were absent for the previous lesson or completely forget. I also would like to know if this makes is seem like you as the teacher are accomplishing things at a slower pace because of the spaced out curriculum. I think this is a very cool concept especially if it works for retention and would love to know more!
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With a keen interest in the neuroscience and psychology of learning, WAGOLL Teaching is about sharing research alongside great, simple teaching ideas to a global teaching community.
Ben has been in education for over 10 years and is passionate about simplifying high quality teaching and learning through innovative and practical approaches in the classroom.