Making Spaced Practice Count

This week’s teaching forum was with maths teacher Morwenna Treleven. Morwenna has been thinking about how to tackle the issue of having to get students to remember a large amount of content, in preparation for terminal exams.  This has coincided with completing the first year of a school-based masters and thinking about an area of interest for her dissertation for year 2.  Following a presentation last year by science teacher Phoebe Bence on using ‘Ankiapp’ to support spaced practice, Morwenna introduced ‘pause lessons’ every week, to review previously covered material – but she wanted to go further with this.

In their blog ‘Tips and Tricks for spaced LearningPaul Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen describe spaced practice:

“This is what it comes down to: Tackling learning in various short sessions works better than learning that same thing in one long session.”

In 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus ran a limited study (on himself) where he taught himself nonsense syllables and then tested himself on them days after the initital exposure to them, recorded how many he remembered, reviewed them again and then repeated the process over time.  This resulted in the now-quite-famous ‘Ebbinghaus forgetting curve’ (see above).  Essentially this suggested that spacing out the reviews, with an increasing gap between them, helped him to remember the syllables.

Morwenna has looked at using this ‘spacing effect’ in her maths teaching.  She has been exploring ways of working out when is the optimal time to return to topics once they have been taught and in relation to the test in that topic, in order to maximise the spacing effect and help support recall.  She describes how she has done this:

(Wolf, 2008)

“Ebbinghaus  used 7 time intervals when recapping, 20 minutes, 1hour, 9 hours, 1 day, 2 days, 6 days and 31 days. The first 2 intervals apply to learning in lesson time; the third is irrelevant when teaching as lessons do not fit into the 9 hour time frames. We can start from the 1 day interval, though this is rarely possible.  2 days, out of Ebbinghaus’ 31 days, calculates to 10% of the total days, 6 days calculates to 20% of the total days. However, by elongating Ebbinghaus’s ‘review time frames’ to plan in the recap sessions and by using Wolf’s (2008) graph (above) of the forgetting curve, using a 60 day time frame, Glienster (2017) gradually increases the ‘percentages of the total days’ each class will have between tracking point tests. The exception to this is this first review; this comes 3 days after the first taught lesson, to compensate for 1 day rarely being possible with the timetabling of lessons. The second review takes place ‘15% of the total days’ after review one, elongating Ebbinghaus’ 10% and compensating for the first review taking place after 3 days and not 1. The third review is ‘25% of the total days’ after review two and the fourth is ‘35% of the total days’ after review three. This will take the class to just over 75% of the time between the initial teaching of that topic and their test. There will need to be a degree of flexibility to adjust these percentages to fit to each class and their lesson timetable.”

In order to implement this somewhat complex approach in a manageable way in the classroom, Morwenna has been using a spreadsheet that calculates from the day of initial teaching, when the review should take place (using the calculations outlined above i.e. when should the review be as a percentage of the time between initial teaching and the test on that topic).  She is currently trialling this with a Y7 and Y9 class and has been doing it since September:

The spreadsheet does this for all new topics that are started (this extract just shows one – product of prime factors).  As can be seen, sometimes the review will be covered as a quick quiz at the start of the lesson, on other occasions it will be a homework and towards the end of the period and closest to the test, as a whole review lesson.  Each topic is reviewed four times, with an increasing space of time between each review.   Morwenna is finding this spreadsheet useful in terms of her planning, as it reminds her when she should be reviewing each topic – keeping this in your memory as a busy teacher would be difficult for most busy teachers!

After one term of trialling this, Morwenna is seeing some promising results.  Test scores have improved with the Y7 and Y9 classes that she is trialling this with, and the students appear to be more confident when it comes to remembering things.  Other teachers who are trialling the approach are also reporting the same effect.   These are very early days though.  The trial will be continued over the course of a year, with the results being compared to a control group of students, who are not experiencing this approach.


Spaced Practice – The Learning Scientists

Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention – Cepeda et al, 2008

Increasing Retention Without Increasing study Time – Rohrer & Pashler, 2007

Posted by Shaun Allison


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