Spaced repetition, aka “distributed practice,” has gained significant attention and acclaim in recent years. This easy-to-do, evidence-based approach is one of our best tools for durable, long-lasting learning and provides a great complement to interleaving and retrieval practice.

Ever have an earworm—a bit of all-too-familiar music stuck in your head? Baby shark perhaps? This could be due to spaced repetition, a powerful learning strategy. And I’m not the only one who thinks these ideas are related

Spaced repetition involves distributing learning or study sessions over time, allowing the brain to revisit and reinforce newly learned content or skills at intervals. For an individual learner, It’s about taking the same amount of time planned for studying and breaking it apart into multiple shorter duration sessions. This is in contrast to what most of us did in high school and college—cramming or concentrating all of our practice into a single, extended session the night before a big exam! And while cramming can work in the very short term (I mean, we DID pass those tests, right?), it does NOT generally work in the long term. Spaced practice results in longer, more durable learning, and that’s exactly what we need for professional learning and the workplace. 

Spacing as an individual learner- icons of a large clock representing one long study session compared with many clocks, representing 12 shoter stody sessions spaced out.
Spacing as an instructor or trainer with icons of a teacher in a course without spacing, teaching concept 1, then 2 then 3, and so on, contrasted with a teacher who revisited earlier concepts in each subsequent lesson.

As an individual learner, you would start your spacing routine by practicing material a bunch of times with just a little time passing in between (e.g., just a few minutes or hours) and then gradually increasing the amount of time between practice sessions (up to days and even weeks). Believe it or not, it’s actually good to let a little forgetting sneak in there. It may sound counterintuitive, but the harder you have to work to retrieve during spaced practice sessions, the better. Researchers call this “desirable difficulty.”

The Perils of Forgotten Knowledge

Have you ever attended a professional development workshop or other course, feeling as if you absorbed a wealth of new information and then returned to your work, only to find that much of that new knowledge had slipped away? Unfortunately, this scenario is all too common. 

KEY TAKEAWAY

Without intentional reinforcement of new material spaced over time, the valuable insights we gain in professional learning sessions can easily fade into the background noise of our daily responsibilities.

Unveiling the Science Behind Spaced Practice

The science behind spaced or distributed practice is compelling, rooted in cognitive psychology, and manifested in a wealth of published studies. According to this research, spacing learning or study sessions is a far better approach for retention and recall than massed practice. When we revisit material over time, our brains are compelled to retrieve the information repeatedly, thereby strengthening our neural pathways and connections and embedding the knowledge more deeply. While many researchers are confident that spacing does work, they’re not certain they quite understand why it works. 

Some researchers posit that memories become more stable with time simply because more and different “traces” of the initial memory are made each time we retrieve it (in order to study or practice). The time between spaced learning or studying events could also provide a way to distinguish one learning event from another because the contexts in which we study or learn change—in other words, the time of day, location, what we’re wearing, how we’re feeling, what is going on in the world, etc.—are likely to be different across time. Another line of thinking is that spaced repetition works due to “studyphase retrieval,” a fancy term for recognizing that something is repeated when you see it.

Harnessing the Potential of Spaced Repetition in Professional Development

As teachers, trainers, or instructors, it’s not hard to simulate spaced repetition in our professional learning sessions by simply using some of our retrieval practice strategies on previously taught material. Incorporating spaced practice into our sessions is one way for us to go beyond just sharing information. It can turn professional learning into a transformative experience for participants, empowering them to enhance their own workplace impact. Here are a few additional strategies for incorporating spacing:

Work spaced repetition into curriculum design: Structure professional development courses with intentional gaps between sessions, allowing participants to revisit and reinforce key concepts multiple times. Use a “sprial curriculum” approach where topics taught early on are built upon and revisited in subsequent sessions. 

Ensure sessions are interactive: Design an active learning environment where participants engage with the material during and after initial teaching through discussion, problem-solving, and hands-on activities that promote deeper understanding and encoding and allow multiple opportunities to retrieve previously learned information or skills..

Use technology to support spacing: leverage digital platforms and tools to deliver spaced practice opportunities during and after the course through online quizzes, discussion forums, or microlearning modules.

Learning Strategies are Gifts to Our Learners

Spaced repetition, along with interleaving and retrieval practice, are gifts to ourselves as well as to our learners. Those who are open to these practices will employ them on their own once they know how, allowing them to experience longer-lasting, more durable learning, and those who are less likely to use these tools as individuals outside of a professional learning or training session will still reap the benefits of having experienced them during their learning. After all, is it not incumbent upon us to embrace evidence-based practices that elevate learning experiences? 

REFERENCES (if you want a little no-so-light reading about spaced repetition):

Benjamin, A. S., & Tullis, J. (2010). What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology, 61(3), 228–247. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2010.05

Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: a review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354–380.

Logan, J. M., Castel, A. D., Haber, S., & Viehman, E. J. (2012). Metacognition and the spacing effect: The role of repetition, feedback, and instruction on judgments of

learning for massed and spaced rehearsal. Metacognition and Learning, 7, 175–195. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11409-012-9090-3.

Rohrer, D., & Taylor, K. (2006). The effects of overlearning and distributed practice on the retention of mathematics knowledge. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 1209–1224.

Vlach, H. A., & Sandhofer, C. M. (2012). Distributing Learning Over Time: The Spacing Effect in Children’s Acquisition and Generalization of Science Concepts. Child Development, 83(4), 1137–1144. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01781.x