Spaced-practice: FREE White Paper And 10 Practical Ways To Make It Happen

I've written a White Paper, available here, on spaced-practice that includes the theoretical basis, along with informal, formal and technological solutions. Lots of detail, with full citations but here's some simple techniques for implementing spaced-practice without too much effort.

Spaced-practice, despite being well known since Ebbinghaus first suggested it as a solution to his forgetting curve, in 1885, remains a rarely practiced technique in learning. The reasons are obvious enough. Most education and training delivers isolated doses of learning, lectures, presentations, classroom courses and the learners walk out of the door at the end, job supposedly done. Teachers had no real way of getting to them after the event had finished.

Spaced-practice needs to be habitual. John Locke and William James both emphasised the key role that ‘habit’ plays in learning, lessons we’ve ignored.

Good learners, in my experience have developed good learning habits. They always have something to read in their pocket or bag. They tend to be obsessive note takers, often with a long series of filled notebooks. They habitually elaborate what they hear and actively try to remember. They replay and recall in their own minds, through dialogue and re-reading their notes. They also tend to kick start new learning habits, such as blogging, using Evernote and so on.

So how can we make spaced-practice habitual?

  1. Top and tail
    As a teacher, if you deliver a series of lectures, classes, modules, whatever, the simple practice of summarising what was taught in the last lecture, period, class or event and doing the same at the end of the lecture/class/event, gives two reinforcement events for the price of one. There’s a double dividend in that you take advantage of primacy and recency (also discovered by Ebbinhaus), the fact that learners tend to remember the first and last things more than what comes in between.
  2. Note taking
    As a learner, get into the habit, not only of taking notes, but rereading and rewriting those notes. Wittrick and Alesandrini (1990) found that written summaries increased learning by 30% through summaries and 22% using written analogies, compared to the control group. If you take notes AND review them, you do better on assessments (Kiewra 1989, 1991). Interestingly, Peper and Mayer (1978) found that note taking increased skills transfer and problem solving in computer programming and science (1986). Shrager and Mayer (1989) found similar effects in college students, learning about cameras. It would seem that note taking allows learners to relate knowledge to experience.
  3. Places
    Planes, trains and automobiles, as well as airports and any other place where you find yourself hanging around - opportuntiy for a bit of recall. There are other things in life you do regularly, like eat, go to the toilet, leave the house and so on.
  4. Email
    If all of your learners use email then this is an easy and efficient way to deliver spaced-practice events. Group emails, set up and timed for release, can get whatever reinforcement event you wish to design straight to your audience. A simple text email, infographic, question, video, even piece of e-learning; anything that makes them rethink, will help fix the learning in long-term memory.
  5. Blog
    Bloggers regularly report the learning value of writing and crystalising their thoughts in blog posts. This, in itself, involved deep processing, therefore better encoding, retention and recall. Blogging is, in this sense, a massively effective way to reinforce learning. It’s one of those things that, when it becomes habitual, is massively effective as an aide memoire.
  6. Twitter and Facebook
    Given the fact that 1.5 billion people are on Facebook there’s a good chance that your learners are easier to reach on Facebook than they are in your institution, library or any other physical space. The notifications system on Facebook is superbly efficient and that little red circle with a number in it is a strong stimulus for attention. Simply message your students with a series of cues from the lecture or course.
  7. Sleep
    One of the most effective methods of habitually delivering spaced-practice is to encourage learners to get into the habit of a little practice and recall just before they go to sleep. This takes discipline but studies show that it is very effective as the brain appears to consolidate memory during sleep.
  8. Exercise
    If you exercise regularly, that is the chance to recall and reinforce whatever you want to retain. A podcast through your headphones in the gym? Simply record your own lists, notes, reinforcement events and replay on demand. Get into the habit and you’ll get both physical and psychological gains
  9. Mobile
    Systems, like ENCORE, deliver reinforcement events, spaced between any two times to your learners’ mobiles. You can choose what to deliver when using a variety of media. This system gets to that powerful, personal, portable device in the pocket of every learner.
  10. Adaptive spaced-practice
    Systems are emerging with personalised spaced-practice that is delivered according to your needs, paying attention to your preferred channels, interleaving known and less well known items for practice, avoiding cognitive overload when you miss some and so on.

Conclusion

Spaced-practice is arguably the most powerful, yet most overlooked benefit in learning. Implemented properly and it is possible to have huge gains in productivity, namely the retention and recall of whatever has been learnt. I’d go further and say that if you don’t have a spaced-practice strategy, you don’t have a properly designed course.

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