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Study Strategy: Spaced Practice

We’ve all done it in the run up to exams… in fact when most of us were at school there didn’t seem to be an alternative option. That thing was of course CRAMMING!

Everything you had learnt in the previous 3, 6 or 9 months was crammed into your head, over a finite period of time, in the hope that it all remained in short term memory until the exam paper was set out in front of you – then bingo – it would all come flowing out majestically!

In those days we didn’t know an awful lot about the science of learning, about the importance of consistently reviewing information in order to transfer it to long-term memory or about the difference between recognising material and being able to recall it. We just got used to the cram mentality – I even remember a friend of mine taking caffeine drugs to keep them awake for an ‘all night' study session.

The Science Bit

Thankfully the science has progressed and we now have concrete evidence of the benefits spacing out revision over time has over cramming. In the science of learning we call this debate ‘spaced practice v massed practice.’ Although, really there isn’t much of a debate. The evidence is conclusive – spaced practice (or the spacing effect) improves recall in almost all circumstances. 

The concept of spacing has its roots in the late 1800s psychology and in the work of Ebbinghaus.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

In 1885 German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted, at the time, what was landmark research - he found that there is an exponential loss in the ability to recall information over time unless it is consistently reviewed. In other words, if we don't review material we will forget it. Even though this might sound like common sense to most of us, for some reason we don’t always seem to help our young people apply this principle to their learning – and in particular to preparation for exams.

The forgetting curve appears simplistic but the principle behind it has, since the Ebbinghaus era, been well established in the literature.

We begin to forget almost immediately after the learning of new material. The more we review (at spaced intervals) the higher our chance of being able to recall the same information.

Spaced Practice in practice

When working with students I sometimes use the analogy of sport when talking about concepts like spaced practice.

For example, let’s say your child learns a new turn in football – the Cruyff turn. They learn the skill at training and plan to use it in the cup final in 3 months.

Would they:

  1. Learn the turn, practice it that night, forget about it until the night before the final and then stay up through the night trying to remember how to do it (whilst getting very little sleep).
  2. Learn the turn, consistently practice it and by the time the final comes be proficient in how to do it.

Imagine these two scenarios – how do you think your child would perform on cup final day?

Now take that to a learning scenario – they are learning new concepts every day and often not revisiting them until it comes to the cup final – otherwise known as the exams!!

The reason spaced practice is so effective as a technique is that it provides us with a framework for ensuring material is transferred from short to long-term memory. When it’s in long-term memory we can dip in and retrieve it whenever we need – in this case, that time is during exams.

Ideally, spaced practice shouldn’t just begin when students approach exam time. To benefit fully from the spacing effect students should develop a ‘spaced planner’ immediately after learning, planning out, revisiting/reviewing/practicing the same topics at spaced intervals.

However, not all students will do this and to be fair many may not even know how effective this strategy actually is, never mind how to practically apply it. 

As long as they begin the revision process early then there can still be enough time to ensure a number of reviews of the same material – thus enabling the transfer of knowledge and understanding to long-term memory. Of course there is a last resort - if your child has not completed any revision in the lead up to the exams then by all means tell them to cram!! Something is better than nothing.

The reality is - cramming causes exam stress and a feeling of ‘loss of control.’ Spacing creates calm and a feeling of being in control. Think back to your last set of exams – which of those feelings would you have preferred?