Spaced Learning: A Neuroscience-Based Approach To Maximize Learning Outcome

Foster Knowledge Retention With Spaced Learning
Summary: The biggest challenge for any learning program is to ensure retention of learning. If learners do not retain what they learned in the program, the program is not very useful.

Foster Knowledge Retention With Spaced Learning

For a long time, educationists researched methods to increase the retention of learning to maximize learning outcomes. One of the key findings of researchers in this respect is known as the spacing effect. A German psychologist and researcher in quantitative memory, Hermann Ebbinghaus, was the first to demonstrate the spacing effect. According to him, one can maximize learning retention by repeating instructions at regular intervals. Educationists call it the spacing effect as instructions are given to learners at regular intervals.

How Is Spaced Learning Designed?

Let’s find out how one can design spaced learning. In spaced learning, the learning material is divided into smaller modules. Learners take the modules at a certain point in time.

Learners then take the modules again after a defined period, say one week. Learners then again take the modules, but this time after a longer time, say two weeks. Learners then take the modules again after a defined time, say three weeks.

This is repeated until learners attain mastery of the concept. The number of repetitions and spacing between repetitions is determined by learning designers based on various factors, such as complexity, learner profile, mastery level required, etc.

Why Is Spaced Learning Effective?

To understand why spaced learning is effective in ensuring retention, we need to understand how human memory works. Whatever we learn gets stored in the short-term working memory.

The learning is retained only when it is transferred to long-term memory. However, human memory is not permanent, unlike computer memory. So, as human beings, we tend to forget things we haven't recalled for a long time. This is known as the forgetting curve.

The forgetting curve is nothing but how much we forget over time when our brain does not repeat the same activity. For example, say one learns five words of a new language today. If the person does not use the words in any way for say next two weeks, they will be able to remember only two out of five words. Spaced learning takes into account this forgetting curve and repeats the learning module before learners completely forget the learning. This reinforcement makes the brain work hard to remember the learning of the first instance. The more the brain works, the better it becomes.

This way, the memory is also transferred to long-term memory. As learners keep repeating, the brain keeps getting more and more efficient in remembering the learning. In layman’s terms, we call this “practice makes a man perfect.”

How To Incorporate Spaced Learning Design In eLearning Design

Spaced learning design is essentially a content design and delivery strategy that takes into account the spaced learning concept. Here are some of the essentials of spaced eLearning design:

  • Short and frequent modules: plan shorter modules instead of a single longer module
  • Frequent review modules: create review modules to be taken by learners at a defined but extended period; assess the retention and progress of learners
  • All new modules to start with a recap of older modules
  • Relate new concepts with older concepts
  • Create a summary and checklist as reinforcements

Advantage Of eLearning In Designing And Delivering Spaced Learning

Every individual has a different forgetting curve. Thus, one should personalize the frequency of instruction to meet the optimum speed and learning requirements. Since eLearning modules are self-paced and can be delivered anytime through learning management systems, individual needs can be catered to effectively. This is not possible in traditional classroom-based delivery.

Challenges And Drawbacks

Spaced learning needs a long-term and dedicated commitment toward the learning program. Many learners find it hard to commit to a longer duration for learning something. Moreover, there are situations when learners need to apply their learning within a short period. Spaced learning design is not recommendable in such scenarios.

And, most importantly, spaced learning design demands deep knowledge and skill from learning designers to define the effective frequency and load. If the frequency is too high or too low, learning will be rendered ineffective.


Spaced learning design is one of the best learning design methodologies to maximize the retention of knowledge. If designed correctly, it can ensure long-term learning and mastery of concepts.

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