Did you know that allowing your brain to nearly forget something you’ve learned is a vital part of remembering? It sounds counter-productive, but research shows that using spaced practice to study can drastically improve your ability to retain information.

What is spaced practice?

Spaced practice is a study technique where learning is spread out over a longer period of time. It’s also known as spaced repetition, distributed practice and the spacing effect. The technique encourages students to review, practise and quiz themselves on the same topics on multiple occasions. This allows the neurons in their brains to form connections between the ideas and concepts over time which strengthens their knowledge and recall ability. Essentially, it’s the polar opposite of cramming, whereby large amounts of material are studied in a short period. Spaced practice promises to produce long-lasting learning but how exactly does it work?

How spaced practice works

Research on spaced practice dates back to Ebbinghaus (1885). In his book, Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology, he found that the spacing effect was superior to massed presentation (cramming) when it comes to enhancing long-term memory. Spaced repetition aims to push the brain to the brink of forgetting before revisiting the material it previously learned. When we allow our brains to almost forget something, it makes them work harder to retrieve the information.

Recalling almost forgotten material is a hell of a brain workout and this helps to move the information into the long-term memory. That’s why spaced learning works so well. Evidence from a study that investigated the impact of spaced practice on children, revealed that ‘spacing educational lessons apart in time promoted both simple and complex generalisation’ (higher learning retention).

The study’s participants were taught different topics, some material was taught only once and others used spaced practice to review what they learned in the lessons. Test scores were higher in the topics that incorporated the spacing effect and the results also indicated that the ‘benefits were still present one week after the last lesson’. The information had entered the pupils’ long-term memory.

How to use spaced practice

Spaced practice is amazing for exam preparation and it works even better when it’s used from day one. However, don’t worry if some of your students haven’t started their revision yet, using this technique will still be helpful.

Here’s how to use the spaced practice technique:

Break studying into short sessions: Evidence shows that breaking revision up into short regular sessions is more effective for exam preparation. This is because it allows the brain to process and consolidate information without becoming overwhelmed. The Pomodoro Technique recommends working in 30-minute bubbles. A timer is used to break revision sessions into intervals of 25 minutes of pure concentration, then a five-minute rest break. The process is repeated depending on how long you have to study, e.g. if you have three hours, you’d repeat this six times.

Revisit the information on multiple occasions: As mentioned above, spaced practice works so well because it pushes the brain to nearly forget. This means it is important to revisit information at certain times and quiz yourself. The standard spaced repetition schedule is to review the information in these intervals:

  • after an hour
  • the next day
  • two days later
  • after a week
  • then fortnightly
  • then monthly

The forgetting curve is how much the brain forgets over time when we don’t put in the effort to actively remember. The spaced practice schedule works alongside the forgetting curve and helps us retain the information because learning something one time is not enough.

Quiz yourself: Simply rereading information will not cut it. Improving our ability to recall information requires retrieval practice. This can be done by using flashcards, visual prompts, memory games and creating mini-quizzes for each subtopic you study. These techniques will encourage your brain to work harder to retrieve the information.

Resources to help improve memory

Spaced practice is not only effective for young people, adults can use it too. It can be used to acquire knowledge and skills on any topic.

Credit © Taiwo Bali
Taiwo was a secondary English teacher for four years before she joined Twinkl.