Applying the Spacing Effect to How Students Learn

Applying the Spacing Effect to How Students Learn

Most people can remember cramming everything they had to learn in a class the night before a test. It’s a common phenomenon in traditional schools: listen passively in class, skim the textbook, try to memorize all of the necessary material hours before an exam, take the exam, and then promptly dump everything from memory. It’s why people largely forget most of what they learned in school — never mind that most of the information isn’t applied, but people simply physically can’t remember.

That’s because what we learn shouldn’t be consumed in one content binge session. That much is obvious, but the reason for this is because people naturally are able to better remember ideas and information if they’ve learned and processed the content over multiple instances. This concept is called the Spacing Effect.

This phenomenon is primarily effective in long term retention of knowledge — it may not be useful for an immediate regurgitation of information in, say, a high stakes test. But with proper planning and scheduling, it can be incredibly efficient over time.

One of the more common forms the Spacing Effect appears in student’s learning are flashcards. In Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It, the author Gabriel Wyner states “In a four-month period, practising for 30 minutes a day, you can expect to learn and retain 3600 flashcards with 90 to 95 percent accuracy. These flashcards can teach you an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation.”

Retrieval is key in the spacing effect. It’s the act of trying to remember something that’s been forgotten that entombs the information in memory. For example, practice tests are more valuable than simply reading notes. And retrieving information often and constantly allows people to recall information more easily — our brains rank repeated information more highly than information that we only encounter once or twice.

Without that constant retrieval, people are prone to forgetting what they learned — exponentially. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve describes that people remember 100% of what they learned at the time of their first encounter with the information. But it decreases to 40% in only a few days, and it’s even worse after that.

But this is mitigated through the Spacing Effect: recalling the information multiple times over spaced intervals.

At Sora Schools, our program applies this phenomenon in our actual educational process. Our curriculum is mastery-based — we don’t believe in high stakes testing for students to demonstrate their knowledge.

Instead, students are assessed and evaluated multiple instances over a period of time. This has two simultaneous benefits: students are allowed to learn without the fear that they’ll forever be branded a failure should they mess up on an evaluation, and they’ll truly develop competence in skills and mastery of concepts — in our system, students need multiple exposure to demonstrate mastery.

Alongside that, our counselors and learning experts are constantly showing and suggesting ways students can use their then-mastered skills to inform their projects and work. On Fridays, students practice, completing retrievals where they either talk or type explaining a set of randomly-selected skills they’ve learned in the past. This isn’t graded; it’s only read by their counselor and learning experts to get a better idea of what they remember. This gives students the opportunity to retrieve and practice the skills they’ve learned!

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