Spaced Practice: The Little-Known Marvel for Enhancing Memory

Here’s a Story I Hear Often:

“I spent 20 minutes yesterday going over troublesome multiplication facts with my daughter. I went over them again today, but she only remembered a couple of facts! Why is it so hard for her to learn these multiplication facts? Her old sister learned them easily. I’m so concerned. At this rate, will she ever learn them? She’s so frustrated and embarrassed she stormed out of the room yesterday bawling, ‘Math is stupid! I hate math!’ What should I do?”

Sound familiar? What do you do? Send her to a tutor that you really can’t afford right now? That’s not necessary. You can help your child learn all kinds of things faster and with less effort if you tap into an incredible memory-building technique known as spaced practice. It is like Miracle-Gro® for building memory.

Introduction

This is the second in a series of posts on memory. I show parents how they can make learning easier for their children. One of the topics I cover a lot is how to help a child remember what she’s studying. In my last post, I explained working memory, how it affects learning, and ways to build it.

In future posts, I’ll cover two other critical topics that will help you build your child’s memory:

  1. How to Improve Your Child's Memory via Focus, Priming, and Metaphor
  2. Use Overlearning to Improve Your Child's Memory 

In this post, I cover spaced practice, which is a well-researched, but underutilized way, to make learning easier for kids. It can save weeks to even months of time depending on what you’re learning.

Let me explain the concept and how it can help your child, so she doesn’t have to deal with so much frustration as she learns.

What Is Spaced Practice?

Spaced practice (also known as “distributed practice” or “spaced repetition”) is an efficient, researched way to review material so your child can spend fewer days studying the same thing. This technique lets a learner save a lot of time by reviewing material, for example, the definition of a trapezoid, after specific intervals or “spaces” of time. The intervals are specific and increase in length after each review. Covering the definition of a trapezoid once or having a single review the next day is not enough. The idea is to re-expose your child’s brain to the material just before she is likely to forget it, which is the very same day she learns it. Spaced practice tells us not only how many times to review but when it makes the most sense to do it.

What’s the Story Behind Spaced Practice?

In the 1850s, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a pioneering psychologist who studied memory, figured out how long we can generally hold onto something before we have forgotten most of it and called this “the forgetting curve.” That is, there is a significant decline in memory retention over time.  He found that we forget well over half of what we learn the first day. He then reasoned, if we tend to forget information this quickly, it would be smart to rehearse and refresh our memory, so we won’t forget so much information so quickly. He tested his hypothesis, found that it was true and called it the “spacing effect.”

Since then, many researchers have spent a lot of time over the last hundred years studying Ebbinghaus’s work and what helps the brain remember well. They’ve found that the brain is designed to let things go because it would otherwise absorb too much random information. The brain must filter out what is important and what is trivial.  We would have trouble functioning from day to day if we remembered everything we ever did or saw.  Our natural state is to forget. The brain needs a cue or a prompt from the environment to hold onto or store something. We need to tell it, “Hey! This is important. Remember this!” One of the best ways to do that is to bring the information to mind, to review or rehearse it, multiple times over a couple of days or more. The research is clear: additional reviews of the material shortly after it is first introduced can save a learner a lot of work.

Wouldn’t It Be More Efficient to Practice in One Session?

Doing one session sounds like it would be more efficient. This is known as “massed practice,” and is more commonly referred to as “cramming.”  Researchers have done hundreds of studies and consistently found that doing all your practice in one or two sessions isn’t nearly as efficient as spaced practice. Providing the brain multiple sessions over a more extended period is a time-saving way to help the brain remember. For example, they found spaced practice can cut the time it takes to learn a second language in half! That should get our attention.

WowzaBrain: Each Review Strengthens the Memory Trace 

The reason for the effectiveness of spaced practice is every time we ask our brains to remember something, the brain must work to “pull out” or recall the information. This work builds what psychologists call a “memory trace” that will be there for us when we need it because every time we recall something the memory trace gets stronger. Without the memory trace for a fact or piece of information, we can’t recall it. Each subsequent effort of recalling strengthens the memory trace. Massed practice doesn’t allow us to do that repeated work of bringing it out of our memory because we’re only actually pulling it out once. It’s at the forefront of our mind, and it’s effortless to review it. Unless we had to do the work of pulling it out, which is called “active recall,” the memory trace doesn’t become stronger. It’s the pulling it out at the time the brain is likely to forget that builds a robust memory your child can count on.

What Are the Benefits of Spaced Practice?

  • Studies show that spaced out, repeated rehearsals with a concept, idea, or skill, leads to better retention, performance, and problem-solving.
  • Spacing out practice sessions forces the brain to retrieve the information multiple times which helps form a stronger memory that is much easier to recall and apply.
  • It gives the brain more time to take the new information it is learning and connect it to what the brain already knows. The richer the connections between the new information and what you already know the more robust the memory becomes and the easier it is to retrieve and apply to what you know and to new ideas.
  • Spaced practice develops learning that is more durable. Consequently, spaced practice is efficient and far more effective than either no practice or cramming.

Who Uses Spaced Practice?

Go to a college website like those at Dartmouth or Arizonia State; you’ll see they strongly encourage their student to use it. But you’ll also notice musicians and athletes have been using spaced practice for many years. These teachers and coaches typically demand daily practice over a full week. They don’t cram it into one day a week and expect their students and teams to grow. Physical therapists also know this well. Daily practice on a set of exercises is expected. Even kids naturally do this. Your teenager will repeatedly play a video game, exploring all the ins and outs of it as she seeks to hone her skills. When your preschooler asks you to reread a book for the hundredth time, that’s also a form of spaced practice. Spaced practice is how the brain learns best, so lots of people are using it−whether they realize it or not.

Isn’t This Just “Drill and Kill”?

Unfortunately, reviewing has gotten a bad rap over the years. Some educators call it “drill and kill,” but the research is straightforward: the brain must have multiple exposures, especially during the first 24 hour period, so that it can build a solid, easily-retrievable memory. Our kids pay a high price in frustration, tears and poor self-esteem. Spaced practice is not “drill and kill.” A better descriptive phrase is “study a little and more often.”

Why isn’t Spaced Practice More Commonly Used?

Sadly, many curriculum writers and teachers don’t understand and apply this basic theory of learning. They teach as they were taught,  assuming one review, usually 24 hours later, is all the brain needs. Most students follow this review-it-once model by cramming all their study time into a session or two a day before their tests.  They may pass tests early in the semester, but as their grades often show and the research indicates, cramming doesn’t help them retain information and perform well over the long haul. This way of studying doesn’t make the information stick. As the semester continues, they start to struggle with the upcoming units in their coursework because they can’t build on what they learned. Little of what you cram sticks.

Additionally, spaced practice requires planning out the multiple review sessions which takes time, effort, and follow through.  We’d all rather do a task once and be done with it. Spaced practice can seem like more work to the student who wants a light workload. The number of reviews is higher, but the total amount of time spent is less, and the amount remembered is tremendously more.

If Spaced Practice Is So Powerful Why Don’t Advertisers Use It?

They do. Have you noticed that Superbowl ads appear during the game and then for days and weeks later the ads are all over social media? Marketers know you need repeated exposure to remember their product. This is also a form of spaced practice. They believe in it enough to spend over five million dollars on these multiple ads.

With your child, even having her tell you at dinner what she covered in history class that day is a rich spaced practice review. It’s helpful because some time has passed, she must work to pull out the key bits of information from her memory, and she is rehearsing it with you. Any added practice on the day she learned the material−even one more review like this makes it easier for your child to retain information and learn.

Quick Story:  I had a five-year-old student who couldn’t remember the numerals from one to ten and common colors despite months of daily practice. I encouraged her mom to use spaced practice. After a week of using the technique, her mom was delighted to report that her daughter had learned most of her colors and numbers in a week. While learning did not come as easily for her daughter as many kids, her mom realized that spaced practice was the golden ticket for her daughter’s future academic success.

What Subjects Is Spaced Practice Best For?

All. Our brains must have repeated exposure over days and weeks to remember the critical aspects of any subject. So, whether your child is trying to remember how to spell “because” or learn a twenty-word vocabulary list for Spanish, spaced practice will make it a lot easier for her.

What Intervals or Spacing do you Recommend?

Here is the review schedule for the first day, after the first exposure to the new material: one minute (Yes, you read that right. For example, 60 seconds after introducing the sight word “was,” you should be going over it again with your child.) Five minutes. Twenty minutes. Two hours.

It's critical to require your child's brain to pull out the information on the day she learned it. Waiting until the next day for the first review is too late. 

And here are the intervals for reviewing recommended after the first day of exposure to the material: 24 hours. 48 hours. One week. One month. Three months.

WowzaBrain: Spaced Practice Schedule

This information is from our WowzaBrain program. Try posting it on your fridge as a handy reference.

I’ve found that using the first day’s schedule, plus adding one final review just before bed and reviewing it the next day, is a highly effective spaced practice schedule for most students to learn any material they find troublesome. Some students may need additional practice intervals beyond that. These students simply need more practice than others on certain content, and that’s okay. It also depends on the complexity of the material. It’s a lot easier to learn to spell the word “hopeful” than to explain an arithmetic concept like long division.

Quick Story: Like any technique or guideline, you want to play with spaced practice and see what works for your child.  One parent shared with me that her son leaped ahead in spelling when she reviewed his list with him 20 minutes later, just before bed, and the following day. Both she and her son were encouraged that spelling significantly improved with far less time needed.

What if I Don’t Get All the Recommended Reviews In?

I’ve had a lot of parents through the years stress over this. They don’t need to because even one review on the same day helps memory. Say that with me: “Even one review on the same day helps memory.” So, even if you only get a couple of the recommended reviews in, you are still helping your child improve her memory. You’re helping her to strengthen a memory by asking her to “pull it out” again, which solidifies it so her brain can store and more easily retrieve it later. Typically, parents will forget if they don’t have a reminder to review. Later, I’ll share some ways to make it easier for you to remember to get reviews in.

Do I Have to Use Spaced Practice on Everything My Child Is Learning?

No. That would be impossible. Instead, figure out what is most important or salient for your child to learn. Now, what is it that’s not sticking?  Each subject has its foundational material that must be learned deeply. In math, for example, multiplication facts are crucial to success. In reading, phonics and sight words are essential. What’s holding up your child’s progress? The good news is that you don’t have to review everything using spaced practice—just the material your child struggles with.

For example, say your child is having trouble remembering the sight word “what” and the sound of the vowel combination oi, as in “voice.” Instead of waiting a full day to review these challenges, you follow the spaced practice intervals of review: quickly go over them a minute later, five minutes later, twenty minutes later, two hours later and, finally, just before your child goes to bed. You’ll see. The next day your child will be far more apt to remember material that she had previously struggled with.

Planning the spaced practice review sessions is extra work for you, but it can save you weeks of practice. For some kids who struggle with learning to read, it can save months of work and a lot of frustration. It can even be the difference between becoming a confident, successful reader and having a life time of struggling with and avoiding reading. Waiting until the next day to recall what they learned can be a guaranteed “fail” for a lot of kids. Spaced practice, however, can take a lot of the negativity out of learning because they experience success as they repeatedly recall something throughout the day. Then, they are a lot less likely to build negative associations with subjects. That is, you are less likely to hear your child yell, “I hate reading!”

How Do I Remember to Do the Intervals?

It can be challenging to get in each of the recommended intervals of practice. An easy trick is to set reminders on your smartphone. You still may not get all the reviews in, but again, even completing some of them makes learning challenging material a lot easier on your child.  If you’re working with an older student, have her set the review intervals on her phone and take responsibility to go over the material each time one of the alarms goes off.

Another simple trick is to place the material (flash cards, book, notes) in a place where you can’t miss it. I’ve encouraged parents to make (or have their children make) multiple sets of flashcards and put them where they will see them, such as in their seat at the dinner table or on their pillow. You may not follow the ideal review schedule, but you are doing spaced out, multiple reviews and this always makes learning easier.

Your Big Takeaways

  • Spaced practice is a learning strategy where you break up or “space” practice sessions out so whatever you’re practicing becomes easier to remember, requiring less time to study.
  • You can optimize learning when you follow a schedule of practice. Your child will retain more information more efficiently when you present it repeatedly, especially within the first 24 hours. This is the time she is likely to lose over half of what is learned is usually lost during this time.
  • Set timers and lay out material where it is easily visible, so your child is more likely to get the multiple reviews her brain needs so she can learn and be successful.
  • Have your child review difficult material several times during the first day she learned it in addition to the following day. Waiting until the next day to review material is not brain friendly and makes it harder for your child to learn.

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Have other questions? Ask me below.

Bridget Mosley, MEd, is a WowzaBrain cofounder and a Cognitive Learning Specialist with more than 30 years’ experience as an educator, reading clinic director, and parent workshop speaker. She is a die-hard fan of parents who believe they can help their kids overcome learning challenges.

 


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