Tes Maths: Pedagogy place - Spacing

Craig Barton
05th December 2017
Tes Maths: Pedagogy place - Spacing

In this series, we dive into the realm of educational research to help you best formulate effective classroom practice

What is the spacing effect and how can we ensure that our students reap the benefits of it in our lessons and homework activities? Let’s find out.

What does the research say?

While previously we’ve researched how teachers can avoid imposing an unnecessary burden on the working memories of students, Bjork and Bjork (2011) also discuss the concept of desirable difficulties.  In short, these are techniques that increase retention and transfer of knowledge through making the retrieval practice harder in the short term.

One example of a desirable difficulty is the spacing effect. This refers to the finding that the learning of new information is strengthened when material is studied over a period of time, rather than in one single session.  As Willingham (2012) explains, “distributing study time over several sessions generally leads to better memory of the information than conducting a single study session”.

In fact, the spacing effect has been shown to be very powerful indeed. For example, in their meta-analysis of spacing studies, Donovan and Radosevich (1999) discovered that the average learner receiving distributed training retains more information than approximately 67 per cent of those receiving massed training.

So, how can teachers take advantage of the spacing effect in the classroom? According to Carpenter et al (2012), there are three ways:

  1. Through dedicating part of each lesson to reviewing concepts learned several weeks earlier, either in a starting activity or with a low-stakes quiz
  2. Through re-exposing students to previously learnt information with homework assignments
  3. Through giving cumulative exams and quizzes, covering both current and previous topics

This then begs the question of what the optimum length of intervals between practice sessions should be, in order to ensure that pupils are able to take full advantage of the spacing effect.   

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Cepeda et al’s (2008) statistical model suggests that for a test within 60 days, the optimum gap before restudy may be ten days. However, in reality, the length of intervals between study is entirely dependent on a number of different factors, including the complexity of the material, the ability and prior knowledge of the students, and how often a topic can feasibly be revisited before assessment.

In summary

The spacing effect is a powerful phenomenon, and one that we can harness relatively easily. Through regularly revisiting previously covered material, students’ learning, retention and retrieval can be greatly increased. However, in order to ensure that our pupils fully reap the benefits, the careful planning of lessons, homework materials and in-class quizzes is required.

How can Tes help?

Lesson starters, question generators, homework quizzes… There are plenty of engaging ways to revisit key topics. Ensure that your students benefit fully from the spacing effect and retain crucial maths knowledge with the help of these stimulating activities.

Solving equations levels 4-6 lesson

Three part lesson on solving one and two step equations at levels 4-6. Starter revisits previous learning. Several task and extension questions with answers. Mini-plenary and mathsbusters plenary embedded. Many thanks to TES member L Rees Hughes for uploading some of the task activities and Tristan Jones for uploading the dot to dot task.
By mistrym03

Mean From A Grouped Frequency Table - Question Generator

A fully interactive question generator on mean from grouped frequency tables. Create questions as well as solutions (broken down into steps or completed in one go) at the press of a button.

You also have to facility (if you unhide the first few columns) to amend any of the data to suit your own style of questions.

Useful for KS3 or KS4
By armathematics

Brockington College Maths homework booklets

All of the homework booklets I design for my Maths department, free and in one place.

Obviously cannot post answers here, but happy for people to email me for them - a DM on twitter with your email address is the best way to get them.

Note there are a few images borrowed from different places. Apologies for any infringement and please just let me know and I am happy to credit or change as required.
By Peter Mattock

GCSE Maths - Mini exam practice papers

An updated set of mini assessments based on early Edexcel GCSE Maths higher papers (2010 and 2011) broken down into very broad new grade categories (4-5, 5-6, 6-9).

Each set of papers (except for Paper 2vextra) contain 3 sets separate papers that combined covered most of the questions from one full higher paper. The extra paper contains one longer paper used originally to prepare for end of term formal assessments.

These have been produced for use with intervention groups or one to one support.
By aliali

Craig Barton, TES Maths adviser

Craig is a secondary maths teacher in the North of England.


  • Barton, Craig. Mr Barton Maths Podcast - Robert and Elizabeth Bjork. (2017)
  • Bjork, Elizabeth L., and Robert A. Bjork. "Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning." Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society 2 (2011): 59-68
  • Cepeda, Nicholas J., et al. "Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention." Psychological science 19.11 (2008): 1095-1102
  • Carpenter, Shana K., et al. "Using spacing to enhance diverse forms of learning: Review of recent research and implications for instruction." Educational Psychology Review 24.3 (2012): 369-378
  • Donovan, John J., and David J. Radosevich. "A meta-analytic review of the distribution of practice effect: Now you see it, now you don't." (1999): 795
  • Willingham, Daniel T. "Ask the Cognitive Scientist Allocating Student Study Time" Massed" versus" Distributed" Practice." American Educator 26.2 (2002): 37-39

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