The benefits of spaced practice in the classroom: four tips for teachers

Spaced learning helps students remember more in less time, says cognitive psychology expert Megan Smith

Megan Smith

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One thing that helps students learn is spacing out practice with material over time, rather than spending long periods of time working with the same material or “cramming”.

Cognitive research tells us that if we spread studying out over time, we will actually learn more than if we took the same amount of time to study in one session. Another way to think about this is that spacing out studying is more efficient. Students would have to study for longer during one session to reach the same levels of learning as when studying is spaced out.

So, how can teachers encourage students to space out their practice with class material? Here are our tips.

  • Help students plan out a study schedule

At the beginning of the school year or each term, help students plan out a study schedule and help them stick to it throughout the year. Explain to students why they need to space their practice. See here for materials to help teach about the benefits of spacing in the classroom. If students are too young to make their own schedule and follow it, guide them to space their practice with the following three tips.

  • Revisit old topics in class

Most teachers know that repetition of ideas is important. But repetition is most effective when the presentation of information is spaced out over time. Plan to revisit topics often throughout the school year.

Doing this also encourages interleaving of topics, which is also helpful to learning. Interleaving topics helps encourage students to see the similarities and differences between ideas – and gives you the opportunity to point out the similarities and differences. Even though students may forget some of the information in between presentations, relearning and remembering will help better engrain it in their memory.

  • Give frequent low-stakes quizzes

When students answer questions on quizzes, they are engaging in retrieval practice, which by itself produces learning. We have written about the benefits of promoting retrieval practice by giving frequent quizzes on TES, but one is worth mentioning again here.

Giving frequent quizzes promotes test expectancy. When students expect to be tested, they are more likely to attend class and tend to study more often in anticipation of a quiz than if they weren’t expecting to be tested. This means that students are more likely to space out their studying in preparation for frequent quizzes. Include questions on older topics on the quizzes to make sure that students revisit the topics and continue to practice retrieval of the older ideas.

  • Give quality homework assignments that revisit old topics

Giving students homework assignments naturally spaces out learning and allows the students time to practice what they know independently. There have been debates about the value of homework lately. The research shows, however, that quality homework does help learning.  

Revisiting old topics in homework assignments further extends the benefits of spacing throughout the year. Try creating homework assignments that pull from a few different topics to increase interleaving as well.

Finally, spaced practice works best when the time is filled with effective learning strategies. You can check out our suggestions for evidence-based learning strategies on our Learning Scientists Blog.

Dr Megan Smith (@DrSmithRIC) is an assistant professor at Rhode Island College. A version of this blog post originally appeared on the Learning Scientists blog. Follow the Learning Scientists on Twitter at @AceThatTest.

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Megan Smith

Megan Smith is an Assistant Professor at Rhode Island College. She received her Master’s in Experimental Psychology at Washington University in St. Louis and her PhD in Cognitive Psychology from Purdue University. Megan’s area of expertise is in human learning and memory, and applying the science of learning in educational contexts.

Find me on Twitter @DrSmithRIC

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