I’ve talked about this before in a previous blog post, but when I was in high school I really had no idea how to study. Let alone knowing the spaced repetition learning method.
The first time a really studied properly for an exam (so I used a strategy to prepare and started a few weeks in advance of the test), it was for a Biology exam in grade 12.
I was aiming for an A so I could get an A for my overall grade, but I missed out by a couple of points. Was it the end of the world? Obviously not, but I do remember being disappointed.
Fast forward twenty years and I can reflect on that as a teacher. How did I make it to the final year of school and not have any real study strategies in place?
I was a good student. I went to school every day, paid attention, handed in my assignments, had a good memory, and did my homework. I was also well-organized and good at managing my time.
But I still never had any kind of strategy for taking tests or studying for tests aside from doing the revision sheets our teacher gave us.
Well, I wanted to get an A and I knew the test was going to be hard because there was lots of content to remember. So I decided I needed to study for a few weeks ahead of time and try to remember as much as I could.
What did I do, you might ask? I used spaced repetition, otherwise known as retrieval practice. Although I didn’t have the language to call it that at the time.
What is the spaced repetition learning method?
The spaced repetition learning method, or retrieval practice, is when you recall information from your brain without relying on notes to prompt you. As you master the material, you gradually increase the time in between recalling the information.
Some ways that you might have used spaced repetition or retrieval practice without realizing it include
- Create a set of revision questions and then ask yourself (or your students) the question and state the answer, and then practice again a few days later.
- Create a set of flashcards and ask yourself (or your students) the questions and answer them. And then practicing again a few days later.
- Complete quizzes in class and repeat some of the questions each week.
- Answer practice questions for homework (or get students to do the same) and repeat practice questions at a later point.
- Do revision quizzes or answer a revision worksheet before a test. And then repeat the quiz or worksheet at a later time.
Are you noticing a pattern here? Repeating the quiz, question, or worksheet at a later date.
Why use spaced repetition learning method?
Spaced repetition is one of the most effective strategies for committing information to long-term memory. The theory goes that information ‘sticks’ in your brain better if you recall it right on the verge of forgetting it.
Because you forget information rapidly after learning it (called the forgetting curve), it helps you remember it if you recall it just before you forget.
As you gradually master the material, the length of time between when you recall and when you start to forget gets longer.
When you schedule study sessions or practice sessions over a long period of time (‘the spaced effect’ or ‘spaced practice’) and practice the questions at intervals (which can be regular or spaced progressively further apart), you begin to commit that information to long-term memory. You make it stick.
To start, you might recall it daily, then once that’s easy, you might move to every two days, then every four days. You continue to do this until you can recall the information after weeks or months.
Other benefits of spaced repetition for learning include
- Helps students remember information for content-heavy units of work
- Uses time efficiently – it doesn’t take long to plan or implement but has a big effect
- Enables more personalized learning because you can assign specific quizzes or flashcards to students based on their skill level
Spaced repetition time intervals
Some theorists of spaced repetition and spaced learning suggest that gradually increasing the intervals between recalling information makes it ‘stick’ better. However, the benefits of gradually increasing intervals versus fixed intervals appear to be marginal compared to fixed intervals.
And as a teacher with many subjects or many classes, keeping track of content and when to review it would be an absolute nightmare. So, sticking to fixed intervals would be far easier to implement.
Spaced repetition learning method: how to use in the classroom?
So, how can you take advantage of the spaced repetition learning method? Easy ways to use it in your classroom include
- Using think, pair, and share to get students to recall previous learning
- Doing quizzes about previous learning on a regular basis
- Questioning students on previous learning in each lesson
- Getting students to do ‘brain dumps’ or mind maps of previous learning every week or two weeks
- Having exit tickets for leaving at the end of the lesson to review the lesson
- Having entry tickets when entering to review the previous lessons’ work
- Setting homework that reviews previous work
- Getting students to create quiz questions or flashcards and practice them periodically in class
- Creating flashcards for students to use periodically in class
- Creating games such as Jeopardy that students can play to review information
The important thing to remember is to do the activities regularly, whether that’s every lesson, once a week, or once every two weeks. It’s the repetition and recall that make the information stick.
Spaced repetition learning method tools
Luckily, there are so many tools available that teachers can use to implement spaced repetition in the classroom. The easiest ways to do it are old-school
- Pen and paper quizzes on scrap paper at regular intervals (weekly, or every two weeks)
- Asking questions at the start or end of class or as part of a mini-review each week
Digital tools you might like to use include spaced repetition flashcards and quiz tools/apps such as
- Boom Cards (if you create them as flash cards instead of task cards)
- Google forms (to create quizzes – see here for instructions)
- Google sheets (to create flashcards – see here for a how-to video)
Spaced repetition websites and blog posts you might want to visit for further reading
- Dr Pooja Agarwal’s website https://www.retrievalpractice.org/ with links to research papers, books, tools, and examples of how teachers are using spaced repetition in the classroom
- Cult of Pedagogy podcasts with Dr Pooja Agarwal, Peter Brown (the author of Make It Stick), and Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein
- YouTube videos from the Crash Course Study Skills series or College Info Geek studying and learning videos
- This article that explores the spaced repetition intervals and the Leitner flashcard system for studying in more detail
Other blog posts you might be interested in
- Easily teach your students to take effective Cornell Notes
- 3 FREE videos with examples of study skills to watch at the start of the year
- 8 awesome reasons to focus on study skills in ELA
- 5 research-backed reasons you should be teaching mind mapping
- Why your students’ notes suck and how to improve them
- 10 awesome study skills worksheets: high school and middle school edition
- How to teach note taking skills: 10+ tips
- Managing study time: 7 easy tips to teach your students study skills