Why spacing and retrieval practice works
Understanding the science behind learning and memory can help teachers understand why spacing and retrieval practice are so effective in helping students learn and remember information. Depending on the situation, spacing can strengthen learning, or make students less likely to be mentally exhausted, and retrieval practice can strengthen memories, or make them more likely to be retrieved and connected to new information later.
Preventing cognitive overload by spacing
If teachers space out teaching similar information and tasks, students are better able to learn and process the information. This is because the mental effort required to learn depletes the cognitive resources available for further learning, and needs time to replenish, preventing cognitive overload.
For example, following a challenging numeracy task with repeated attempts of similar tasks will use similar regions and processes in the brain and deplete the resources required for that task, making students less effective at creating persistent long-term memories. This effect can often be observed when students ‘cram’ before a test but then fail to retrieve the information later. Introducing a gap between tasks enables students’ minds to rest and ensures they can learn effectively and persistently.
Spacing may help learning because it increases the effort required to find something in long-term memory, which can create lasting benefits. As information becomes less accessible over time, students will be more likely to engage in longer searches through memory, activating more ideas which can lead to new or stronger connections with the target, creating new routes for retrieval, or making the target itself more memorable. Retrieval practice can create the same sorts of benefits by challenging students to recall previously learned information, and studies have shown that greater effort during such practice leads to better memory.
With the better connections developed in long-term memory from more effortful retrieval, students will be more likely to successfully remember that information in the future.
Activities that promote retrieval
There are many activities that you can use in your classroom to help students retrieve information from their memory and commit information to their long-term memory. These activities do not need to take up much class time and can happen at many points of the lesson. Some example activities include:
- start each lesson with a connection to prior learning in the form of a “do-now” activity where students are asked to list things that they already know about the topic you are studying
- use an exit ticket to ask students to reflect on how your lesson connects with another piece of learning they have done in your class
- use a regularly scheduled trivia (or another type of low stakes quiz) every few weeks as a revision tool that incorporates questions from previous units of work
- ask students to summarise a concept in a certain number of words, or on a piece of paper, and then ask them to do it again in less words or on a smaller piece of paper
- after learning some new information, have each student write a question for a class discussion that you will hold later in the week
- have students create a flashcard when learning a new concept that they can revisit later when studying
- create a wall display where students can add summaries or visuals over time that shows how concepts in your subject area link to each other
- use homework activities to focus on retrieving previously learnt concepts, not just on what is currently being learnt.
Retrieving information in different ways
Helping your students to retrieve what they have learnt in different ways is important for their long-term retention of their learning. To enable this, you can have your students complete tasks that encourage increasing higher-order thinking, such as:
- remember what they learnt (such as asking students to define or summarise concepts)
- show that they understand what they learnt (which can be done through explaining it to someone else, or demonstrating it independently)
- connect what they learnt to other ideas (through comparing or relating the learning to other learning areas)
- evaluate the concept or create a new piece of work based on what they have learnt (such as debating about the concept or developing their own experiment or composition that explores the concept in more depth)
Over time, these practices will help students’ knowledge shift from simply recalling facts to a deeper understanding.
Spacing and retrieval diagram
Having breaks between practice sessions can help to avoid mental resource depletion that results from focusing mental effort on similar learning tasks. In this diagram, the batteries represent the available resources to help process information and commit to long-term memory. The battery level illustrates how mental resources available for learning may be gradually depleted by extended practice and replenished by a break.
References & further reading
Rowland C A (2014). ‘The effect of testing versus restudy on retention: a meta-analytic review of the testing effect’, Psychological bulletin, 140(6): 1432.
Sweller J (2011). ‘Cognitive load theory’, Psychology of learning and motivation, Vol. 55:37-76
Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Linking scientific concepts
This resource provides an example of highlighting the connections between the constant acceleration formula and Newton's laws.
The teacher has designed the lesson to highlight the connections between the constant acceleration formula and Newton's laws. The students form theories and test predictions with a practical activity using carts and ramps. The teacher supports the students to articulate their reasoning to facilitate self-correction. The teacher reflects on the thinking and learning with the students at the end of the lesson.
Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Around the world with maths
This resource provides an example of Year 5/6 extension Mathematics class revising previous mathematical methods and strategies for problem solving.
The class teacher commences this Year 5/6 extension Mathematics class revising previous mathematical methods and strategies for problem solving. The teacher sees herself as a facilitator to support students’ independent learning. To encourage contributions from all students, she allocates specific roles to each group member. The groups go on a virtual journey around the world to solve real-world maths problems. The teacher concludes the class with reflection to reinforce what the students have achieved.
Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) – Linking theory and practice
This resource provides an example of a Year 8 science class at St Mary's College the science teacher leads the students through a chemistry class on molecular structure.
In this Year 8 science class at St Mary's College the science teacher leads the students through a chemistry class on molecular structure. The class commences with a review to activate prior learning which includes questioning and the students physically representing the parts of an atom. The students experiment with chemical reactions that produce colour effects, similar to those used in fireworks. The teacher establishes clear safety rules and circulates among the group to help students consolidate their understanding of the links between the theory and practical.
Keywords: lesson planning, student learning