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The Value of Getting Spaced Out

posted on November 20th 2018 in Headmaster's Blog

If you were to analyse the challenges that school pupils face you would find a variety of individual issues – some struggle with note-taking, some are brilliant verbally but find it difficult to do themselves justice when writing essays, others freeze when faced with applying existing knowledge in novel contexts. But the one thing which would unite them all is the challenge of remembering things. At the end of the day, for better or worse, public examinations remain, above all, a memory test. One can therefore question the value of our examinations system in preparing young people for the modern world of work, where many would agree that problem-solving ranks above memorising facts as a key skill. However, the system is what it is.

This being the case, it is remarkable how little attention the issue of memory and remembering gets in discussions of teaching and learning. In fact, now that modular GCSEs and A Levels have largely been replaced by a return to the old linear system (exams at the end of two years) that we experienced when we were at school, the ability to retain and recall large amounts of information has become even more important. Therefore, it is crucial that schools pay close attention not just to what their pupils are learning, but when they are learning it, as research shows that when we learn information and when we are tested on it is absolutely crucial to embedding it in the long-term memory.

Put simply, just as athletes don’t only train the day before the match, so students should regularly return to previously learnt material. Yet many schools still stick to the traditional process of testing pupils when they have reached the end of a particular unit of work then leaving any subsequent revision until a few weeks before the examination, which can be as long as several years in the future. Nothing is truly learned until it has been successfully bedded down in your long-term memory so it is no surprise that, given the traditional method of testing pupils at the end of a unit of work, much of what we learn at school is swiftly forgotten forever.

The ‘spacing effect’ is one of the longest and most enduring findings in cognitive psychology. It was first detailed in 1885 by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus who found that humans tend to forget large amounts of information if they only learn something once. Since then, research has consistently shown the power of spacing out your learning. This is an effective technique, as it allows time for the material to be forgotten and re-learnt. This process allows someone to cement it into their long-term memory.

In some studies, using spacing instead of cramming has resulted in a 10% to 30% difference in final test results. This finding has been found to hold true across a range of tasks, from remembering key words and facts to solving maths problems.

Researcher Nicholas Cepeda and colleagues from The University of California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of South Florida devised an experiment to explore the optimum amount of time to leave between revision sessions. Their study, published in 2009 in Psychological Science journal, offers valuable insight into the value of spaced learning.

They had 1,354 participants learn 32 obscure trivia facts. They then divided the participants into 26 groups, each with a different gap before their next revision session and a different amount of time after that before their final test. They then compared how many successful answers the participants recorded in their final exam to see what the optimum amount of time to leave between revision sessions was.

They found that after learning the material, the optimum gap to leave before revisiting the same material depends on how far after that second revision session the test is. The researchers found the following timings offer a good guideline:

days days days days
How far away the test is 7 35 70 350
Gap between revision sessions 3 8 12 27

At Loughborough Amherst School we are introducing spaced learning across all subjects and age groups by getting every department to place tests not just at the end of units but at strategically spaced points several weeks or months after a unit has been completed. This also involves putting aside a reasonable amount of homework time for more regular revision of topics learned several weeks or months before. This is meeting with some resistance from pupils, who are used to seeing the purpose of a test as revising what you have just finished learning and getting a comfortingly high score. But the point is that revising what you have just finished learning is a largely pointless exercise and any resulting test score tells both pupil and teacher next to nothing of value.

What schools and parents need to do now is to work together to help pupils understand that, other than in the final public examinations themselves, the main point of sitting a test is not to do well, or even for your teacher to be able to measure what you know. The main point of sitting any test is the actual experience of being tested, because it provides a ‘retrieval opportunity’ which, if properly timed, helps knowledge to stick in the long-term memory.

And before we rush to condemn the importance of memorising within the schooling system, we should remember that no real judgement, evaluation, imagination or problem solving is possible without first building up a reasonably large storehouse of embedded knowledge. Memory may be the least glamorous of our intellectual functions, but it remains probably the most fundamental and dependable. As Victor Hugo put it, “Intelligence is the wife, imagination is the mistress, memory is the servant.”