Using the Spacing Effect to Boost Retention and Understanding

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Procrastination, it seems, is human nature. We tell ourselves there’s always tomorrow. That is, until the day before an exam. Then, typically, there’s a frantic attempt to cram as much information as possible into a single study session. But a one-time encounter with the material, even if it’s a five-hour-long session, is going to do very little to promote long-term learning.

There’s a simple, unintuitive way to study smarter. Simply by breaking up study sessions into smaller, manageable chunks and spreading them out over time, a lot more learning will take place. Researchers who study learning and memory call it…

My dad (right) circa 1981

I don’t remember much from my early childhood, but I’ll never forget the night my mom, with tears in her eyes, woke me up to tell me my dad was gone. He was 29. My mom was widowed with three children the day before her 29th birthday. I was eight.

To be honest, his death was somewhat of a relief. He had been living with brain cancer for 15 months post-diagnosis and the malady had picked him apart in every way imaginable. The mood swings were extreme, the delusions and hallucinations were intense, and the grand mal seizures were violent…

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You’re teaching a concept in class, working through examples and explaining the steps. You have your students do some practice problems and they seem to be getting it! After a while, the bell rings, you dismiss your class, and you leave for home feeling satisfied with your students’ progress and your teaching methods. The next day, you assess how well your students retained the material. Alas, it’s as if you never taught the concept the day before!

Sound familiar? If you’re a teacher, I’m sure it does.

It’s a fascinating paradox in education: Students can be wildly successful on tasks…

The Science of Learning Can Help

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Consider these statistics: 40%-60% — that’s the percentage range of first-year college students who require remedial classes in English, math, or both;¹ 57% percent — that’s the percentage of students who graduate after starting college;² 38th and 24th — those are the rankings held by our high-schoolers in math and science, respectively, compared to other advanced industrial nations;³ 60% and 67% — those are the percentages of fourth- and eighth-graders, respectively, who are failing to reach proficiency in math.³ The numbers are even more alarming for low-income, first-generation, and minority students.

America, it’s time to be honest with ourselves and…

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After doing poorly on one of my exams, a student of mine met with me and proclaimed, “I’m a kinesthetic learner, so it’s hard for me to do well in classes that are lecture-based. I learn best when things are hands-on.” This illustrates an idea that we’ve all heard before — namely, that people have individual learning styles and, more specifically, that learning will be maximized if the mode of instruction consistently matches the learning styles of those being instructed. That is, learning should be best when visual learners are instructed visually, auditory learners are instructed auditorily, and so on…

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Testing has become a bad word in our society, largely because our educational system places a strong emphasis on high-stakes assessments and standardized evaluations. For many students — perhaps even for most students — getting high test scores is their primary goal in school. And who could blame them? Getting good grades, attaining high SAT/ACT scores, and receiving college acceptance letters depends on how well one can perform on tests. It’s no wonder it’s a source of enormous stress for students, teachers, and parents alike. Heck, I’m getting stressed out just writing about testing!

What, if anything, should be done…

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Knowing how to facilitate durable and flexible learning has never been more important than it is today. Our complex, hyper-competitive, and rapidly changing world requires that we obtain or transmit new skills and knowledge as efficiently and effectively as possible, not only during our years of formal education, but across our lifetimes as jobs, careers, and interests change. Adapting successfully to these challenges requires a critical life skill: learning how to learn. …

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Let’s face it: We want things to be easy. Like rivers that flow around mountains instead of going through them, we usually seek the path of least resistance in our lives. We choose the escalator over the stairs and the movie over the book. But it’s clear that easier isn’t always better. In fact, making things more difficult can often lead to better outcomes. Taking the stairs is better for your physical health than taking the escalator precisely because the stairs are more difficult. The same is true for learning.

Whether you’re studying for the SAT, teaching math in elementary…

Nick Soderstrom, Ph.D.

Nick is a cognitive psychologist with an expertise in human learning and memory and has been recognized for his excellence in research and teaching.

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