Spaced Repetition: Why It Works

Spaced repetition is a slippery learning technique to pin down. This wise guy goes by several aliases in the educational ‘hood. You might have heard about spaced rehearsal, interval reinforcement, distributed practice, the spacing effect, repetition scheduling or some other name. However, these are all the same fellow, and he’s a good guy to have around.

What is spaced repetition?

A learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review and testing of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect.

The notion that spaced repetition could be used for improving learning was first proposed in the book Psychology of Study by Professor C. A. Mace in 1932. Spaced repetition was originally implemented through the use of flashcard systems. Luckily for us, technology has advanced past that era, and we now can use it in our e-Learning courses!

Why does spaced repetition work?

Memory is a fascinating thing. Psychologists and neuroscientists have studied it for years and are constantly discovering new facts about the way the brain works. Eric Kandel, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York City, has shown how short-term memories—those lasting a few minutes—involve relatively quick and simple chemical changes to a brain’s synapse that make it work more efficiently. However, for a learner to build a memory that sticks around for hours, days or years, neurons must manufacture new proteins and expand to make the neurotransmitter traffic run more efficiently. Long-term memories must literally be built into the brain’s synapses. 

Spaced repetition helps build those memories. In his 2012 book on gamification and educational strategies, learning expert Karl Kapp noted that as long as 8 years after an original training, learners whose practices were spaced showed better retention than those who practiced in a more concentrated time period.

“Retrieving knowledge from memory is more beneficial when practice sessions are spaced out so that some forgetting occurs before you try to retrieve again. The added effort required to recall the information makes learning stronger,” says Henry L. Roediger III, a professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.

Incorporating spaced repetition into your e-Learning also helps prevent learner fatigue. By breaking your course up into multiple sections, each followed by a short quiz, you allow learners to take a break before diving back into the work. This is less tedious than having to read through a long course and take one big, stressful test at the end. Researchers have found that by interspersing online lectures with short tests, learner mind-wandering decreased by half, note-taking tripled and overall retention of the material improved.

Now that you’ve met your new favorite learning method, spaced repetition, are you ready to try using him in an e-Learning course? Download a free thirty-day trial of Lectora® e-Learning authoring software, and you’re good to go!

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