Neuroscience Part 2: Spacing Effect

Spacing Effect versus Spaced Learning

There is a lot of new terminology being used when talking about neuroscience and how it’s research can be applied to increase learning. Two terms you often hear—and should be clarified— are: ‘Spacing Effect’ and ‘Spaced Learning’.

Wikipedia defines them as:

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While these Wikipedia definitions do make a clear distinction, when you search for information on the topics, many of the articles refer to Spaced Learning when in fact they are talking about the Spacing Effect. Spaced learning is a specific instance of the spacing effect but I believe there are more opportunities to employ the spacing effect throughout your learning design.

The spacing effect’s impact on learning has been extensively study and results published. In 2006 Will Thalheimer published a report “Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research Says” that provides an excellent summary of that research.

What are some of the key take-aways from the research?

  • Repetitions—if well designed—are very effective in supporting learning.
  • Spaced repetitions are generally more effective that non-spaced repetitions.
  • Both presentations of leaner materials and retrieval practice opportunities produce benefits when utilized as spaced repetitions.
  • Spacing is particularly beneficial if long-term retention is the goal. Spacing helps minimize forgetting.
  • …real learning doesn’t usually occur in one-time events.

Spaced learning has been thoroughly researched in the academic setting and seems very powerful when teaching math and science. Therefore, it may not be that helpful for the content in most corporate learning programs.

Spacing Effect: How can we apply it?

The research provides some good guidelines, but how can we apply them?

In a previous post on Neuroscience, “What Was Old is New Again”, FKA’s Systematic Learning Process or PAF model, was introduced.

This model provides an excellent framework for incorporating the spacing effect into your design. The first step in the design process is to structure the learning event. A very typical learning structure is a course composed of a series of modules with the modules broken into lessons. Starting with the smallest unit, the lesson, you can start to introduce spacing effect design elements.

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Without considering spacing effects the lesson structure could look like this:

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The PAF model already has the spacing effect built in with testing for understanding during the Presentation stage, followed by Application. Learners have several opportunities to retrieve the information within each lesson. However, a significant improvement in retention can be achieved by dividing the presentation into smaller learning chunks (teaching points and testing for understanding). (The idea of the smaller learning chunks will be expanded on in the third part of the neuroscience post about micro learning.) Breaking the lesson up creates the time gaps for some spaced repetitions.

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You need not increase your design effort just make different packaging decisions. The potential for spacing effects is even greater when you move up a level and look at a module. A module is made up an introduction, its lessons and a final module application where learners once again are asked to retrieve and use the information in the lessons.

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At the module level, you identify if there are any anticipated performance gaps at the end of the formal learning program. If you can’t achieve the required job performance level through formal learning you need to identify a bridging strategy that includes work-based activities to help learners achieve the performance needed. The bridging period extends the learning time and provides many spaced practices which would significantly reduce the typical forgetting curve that happens after a learning event.

The Spacing Effect can be added to your instructional design toolkit with little additional investment of effort and has the potential to yield lasting performance improvement.

Jim Sweezie
VP Research and Product Development