How to Use Spaced Learning in Class ?

Has it ever happened to you when you wanted to remember something but,despite repeated efforts you were not able to locate it in your brain? The problem was with the retrieval of the information. Spaced learning is a new teaching and learning strategy, based on scientific research in neuroscience, wherein repeated stimulation of the same neural pathway of the brain makes it easier to locate and access the information stored within it. Spaced learning creates neural pathways at the start of a learning unit, which are then revisited at various intervals over time. It consists of condensing the learning content and repeating it three times , separated by two 10 minutes breaks in between, during which distracter activities (e.g.physical activities) are performed by the students.  Spaced learning has potential to help students with recall in examinations .It also has potential for enabling enquiry-based learning (EBL) and project-based learning (PBL). The distinctive features of this method are: the speed of instruction being minutes (as opposed to hours, days or months), the spaces and their function, and repetition of the content three times.

Origin of Spaced learning method

Spaced Learning is based on a discovery about how brain creates memory through temporal pattern of stimuli, as reported by R. Douglas Fields (2005) in Scientific American.Interestingly, his discovery showed that the length of stimulation was not vital, but the gap between stimulations was. This insight formed the basis of Spaced Learning .Paul Kelly ,a British neuroscientists and educator, built on the idea of Spaced Learning to create a  learning method to enhance knowledge retention and creating long-term memories (Making Minds , 2008). Work by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, in the late 1800s on memory and forgetting has also contributed to the development of this method.  Years of research on this approach to learning has been done on different species and has been published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, which gives it a very scientific base. Further research and findings in Educational neuroscience, an emerging scientific field that explores the interactions between biological processes and education gives considerable weight to the use of spaced learning method in education.

The structure of a Spaced Learning lesson in class

A Spaced Learning lesson consists of three ‘inputs.” The structure of the three inputs session is; Presentation, Recall, Understanding. Each input is separated by two 10-minute gaps as follows ;

Structure of Spaced learning lesson

The first input is the presentation of the information by the teacher. It is usually in the form of a lecture wherein, the teacher presents key facts and information, usually by a PowerPoint presentation. Though there are no time restrictions, the length of this input is usually 10–15 minutes ,keeping in mind the attention span of the students. Neural pathways are created and start the process of creating memories in this session.

The second input focuses on recalling information .The teacher revisits the content presented in the first session to stimulate the  same neural pathways .To make it interactive, one can vary the way the content is presented. E.g Students may be presented with information which has missing key words or they might solve simple problems using the formulae presented in the first input. This would allow the students to remember/recall information learned in the first session.

The third input focuses on understanding. Tasks given to the students in this session  involve application of knowledge or skills they have just acquired. In this session, the teacher gives the students activity that requires them to use and apply the content from the first input to demonstrate their understanding of it .

The three inputs are separated by two ‘breaks’ where students do ‘distractor’ activities. Theses breaks are of 10 minutes each. Why 10 minutes? Because this is time that the pathway needs to be ‘rested’ before the next stimulation. This is required  to strengthen the neural pathways recording the information learnt in the  session .During these breaks, it is also important to avoid stimulating the same memory pathways that are being formed. Thus, the activity should be very different from what the students are learning. The most effective way of doing this is to carry out physical activities that use parts of the brain requiring balance and movement, which are not being used during the learning in the lesson. One can also use activities like clay modeling ,games, sports ,aerobics etc.While deciding on activities it is important to remember that the activities should be as different from the presentation as possible; they should be varied; and they should last about 10 minutes.

Thus this process of rapid structured repetition, separated by short breaks, embeds the information in the long term memory.

Body of ongoing research in the area of Educational neuroscience  provide a very scientific base to this new method of teaching and learning. Spaced Learning works with students of any age. According to Harvard magazine rigorous studies on medical students and residents have shown its efficacy: it can increase knowledge by up to 50 percent, and strengthen retention for up to two years. Furthermore, students report enjoying spaced education and even call it “addictive.”  If this technique is adopted by schools it could change education forever!

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