Optimize learning with spacing

Posted by Greten on 07 Sep 2019 under Theories

Spacing is one of the key elements of AGES model of learning. It refers to the gap between learning sessions, practice exercises, and other learning activities. The gaps are usually a day or several days long and rely on how the entire course or program was planned, not just one lesson.

Although learning breaks can also be considered spacing, they happen within a lesson, and the main reason they are used is to sustain the learner's attention.

There are three ways spacing can be used in elearning, or even in learning in general: spacing effect, testing effect, and spaced repetition.

Spacing effect

The spacing effect refers to the impact of the gap between lessons to the quality of learning; the longer the lesson or the learning session is, the longer should be the gap between it and the next lesson. Also, learning sessions that are more spaced out have a better learning outcome.

A woman accessing an LMS using a mobile phone, with a clock and a laptop on the desk where she is resting her arms.Your learning is more effective if there are spaces of at least 24 hours between learning sessions. A math topic divided into three 1-hour lessons on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday is many times more effective than a three-hour math lesson that happens only once a week.

In a regular classroom setting, it is easy to schedule the lessons so that the students take shorter sessions in a day and spread the learning process across several days. However, in an asynchronous online learning or distance education, some learners tend to cram several lessons over a long continuous span of time due to being busy with other daily commitments such as work, business, or childcare.

If possible, configure the learning management system (LMS) such that the learners can take only one lesson every 24 hours or whatever limit is needed in your curriculum. At the very least, if being asynchronous is one of the important selling points of your courses, you should encourage your learners from taking several lessons in one sitting session.

The gap between learning sessions allows the learners to reflect on what they just learned and establish its connection to their existing knowledge. Also, the sleeping hours between the learning sessions will enable the brain not only to rest, but also to sort what the learner learned and experienced during the day based on importance. For example, during sleep, the learner can conveniently forget the color of the learning module's slide border but cement the equations discussed in the module in their knowledge base.

Testing effect

Another way that spacing can affect learning is through the testing effect; it refers to the effect of the gap between the lesson and the learner's attempt to recall what they learned during that lesson. The longer the time between the lesson and the recall, the stronger those parts of the lesson that they recalled will stick to their long term memory even though they are likely to recall less. On the other hand, if the gap between the lesson and the recall is shorter, while they may be able to recall more, those that they recalled are less likely to stick to their long term memory.

Repeating recalls also further strengthen the bond with long term memory, and the access to that part of the memory becomes easier. This is why the knowledge and skills that a person uses more often become permanent and easiest to access.

In one study involving math students, groups A and B learned the same math topic on day 1. Group A solved ten math problems about that topic while group B did only five. Seven days later, group B did another five problems. At this point, both groups answered the same number of problems. A week after day 7, group A scored 75% while group B scored only 70%. It looks like cramming the problems on the same day as the lesson is better for learning. However, four weeks after the test, another test was taken. This time, group A scored 32% while group B scored 64%.

A diagram showing the timeline of the experiment on learning math narrated in the previous paragraph.

It is called testing effect because tests, quizzes, and seatworks are the common situations in which learners are forced to recall what they learned, and they are usually taken at least a day after the learning session. However, these are assessment tools, meant to measure how much the learners learned instead of reinforcing the learning.

The key here is to have separate sets of questions for actual tests and for exercises that are meant to use the testing effect to reinforce learning. The questions for these exercises may not be as many as the ones for quizzes, as long as they can make the learners attempt to recall. Upload these question to your LMS and make the students answer them at least one day after the lesson. You can also integrate these questions as question slides inserted into the succeeding lessons.

Do not grade the exercises meant to make the learners recall. However, if they are not getting anything from these exercises, they might guess the answers to get the exercise done quickly instead of trying to recall what they learned. Perhaps, you can offer a parallel point system for those who answered the exercises correctly, and the learners can use these points to retrieve another reward; for example, getting the first turn in selecting the topic for a term paper.

Spaced repetition

In a traditional classroom education, the typical scenario is that the teacher or instructor goes through the course materials, and then the students will review their lessons on announced examinations. Then, they will review all of the lessons a night before the one big final examination at the end of the quarter, semester, or school year. Reviewing all of the lessons taken for several months in just one day is called cramming.

Cramming is not a good idea in the same way that studying several lessons in one continuous sitting is suboptimal. The best scenario you can expect from cramming is for the learners to remember all of the lessons and get a high score in the exam, only to forget them months down the road. Cramming also forces the students to deprive themselves of sufficient hours of sleep, which will cause the brain to work poorly during the exam.

A good study habit that allows the learners to retain a large chunk of what they learned without depriving them of sleep is to review past lessons at definite intervals within the period (quarter or semester) that leads to the big final examination, not just when they are expecting a test. An excellent instructional design incorporates good study habits in the overall instruction.

Spaced repetition is the strategic repetition of past lessons in predetermined interval days after the learners learned it the first time.

The repetition needs not to be as comprehensive as the original lesson so as not to take time away from newer lessons; they can be in the form of 3-minute microlearning lessons, or just a popup box containing a small part of a previous lesson shown to students at random whenever they open the LMS. In fact, it is much better to show the repeated lesson with different modalities; for example, if the original lesson is in video format, the repeated lesson can be a simple text and illustration.

Shown below is an example of how to include spaced repetition in your instructional design.

A diagram showing how spaced repetition can be utilized. Day 1 has 5-minute course introduction and 25-minute full lesson 1. Day 2 has 5 minutes of summary of lesson 1 and a 25-minute full lesson 2. Day 3 has 5 minutes of summary of lesson 2, randomly selected parts of lesson 1, and a 25-minute full lesson 3. Day 4 has 5 minutes of summary of lesson 3, randomly selected parts of lessons 1 or 2, and a 25-minute full lesson 4. This pattern repeats until the last course day with the last full lesson, a summary of second to the last lesson, and a random part from any of the previous lessons.

If you have a sufficiently advanced LMS, you can change the odds that the popup has a higher chance of showing lessons where learners did poorly in the previous quiz or where they seem to be skimming and not paying enough attention.

A clever way to implement spacing effect, testing effect, and spaced repetition can be like this:

  1. Allow the learners to take elearning module lesson 1.
  2. Alow the learners to take lesson 2 a day or more later, utilizing the spacing effect.
  3. In predetermined parts of lesson 2, there will be slides that ask questions about lesson 1.
    • The questions can be in the form of multiple choice, and can be repeated until the learner gets the correct answer, or all the choices are used up.
    • They cannot skip this slide so they will be forced to recall, utilizing testing effect in the process.
  4. Whether they got the answer correct or they run out of choices, a small textbox containing an explanation why the correct answer is the correct answer will appear, which is a form of spaced repetition.
  5. Repeat the same steps for lessons 2 and 3, lessons 3 and 4, and so on.


Last updated on 12 Oct 2019.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning