Friday, January 30, 2009

Spaced practice in learning - at last!

I read a story in the Guardian today that literally made me whoop out loud. I've been going on about this for years, but at last someone in the schools system has had the courage to accept the science and get on with the practice. Ebbinghaus in 1885, supported by a century of follow up research showed that spaced practice works. It IS how we learn, yet hardly anyone in education and training puts this theory into practice. Education and training is largely blind to the basic psychology of learning, yet this project supports the idea that they'd better wise up - and fast.

A school in North Tyneside put students through a spaced programme interspersed with physical exercise and it had spectacular results. 80% of the class of 46 achieved acceptable results in GCSE Science module. I'm not entirely convinced that the project was properly structured (spacing seemed too tight) or researched, but it suggests that this is a fruitful line for further work. 

Little and often learning works as it gives the brain time to encode and fix memories, as well as reinforcing those memories over time. The traditional sheep-dip approach (the norm) does neither. This focus on actual learning takes brain science and memory theory seriously. Can I suggest that you read this again in ten minutes, then again tomorrow.

Speaking to Dr Itiel Dror, he was aghast at the lack of basic knowledge in the psychology of learning in learning professionals. He also suggested some basic controlled research into a traditional lecture versus the same lecture on video (with learner control) and the same lecture in an e-learning format. Seems obvious but it hasn't been done - or has it?


Anonymous said...

Hi Donald, this is off-topic but I'm organising a social event for the OD and HR bloggers based in the London area.

Nothing too formal, just a few drinks and a bite to eat.

Would you be interested in coming along?

If so, drop me a line at

Phil Green said...

I applaud all you say here about spaced practice, Don (unusual for me I know). As for your conversation with Itiel Dror, he's a man I like and respect enormously, and I admire his work. I think he stands to make a major contribution to the sometimes closed, incestuous world in which we all operate, by making tested and proven theory accessible to common practice. Even so, his "being aghast at the lack of basic knowledge in the psychology of learning in learning professionals" is a bit of a generalisation, and a cynic might say of Itiel, since he is a supplier of said knowledge, "He would say that wouldn't he?" (Thanks to Mandy Rice-Davies). I have worked amongst "learning professionals" for many years, and accept there may be a problem, but it depends upon whom you have in mind. Many suppliers are ex-teachers who've been re-trained to design flexible modular and blended learning. (Do qualified teachers know anything about the Psychology of Learning? Debate.) Within internal L&D Departments I meet many Trainers and Managers with degrees in behavioural sciences, and teaching and training qualifications. I'd be cautious about announcing the extent of this deficit without some proper research data to back it up (The scientific Itiel, I'm sure would agree).

Lars Hyland said...

I also have been researching this area for some time. Good to see even some basic evidence of adopting these approaches in an educational setting. I spoke with Itiel also and agreed that there is still a huge job to be done to convince a training community to genuinely reevaluate their deeply held assumptions and to look objectively at the longstanding and now growing evidence in front of them.

I got a positive reception to my seminar talk on Wednesday at LT and got the spaced practice message out there. Curious if you are aware of any interesting tools that support this area?

Good to see you at the Conference - enjoyed the Keynote session with Charles and Jay (nice plug for Caspian by the way :-) ). Got a distinct impression from the audience of slightly fearful deep breaths as they prepare for making some changes. Hopefully this is progress...

Donald H Taylor said...


I read this in the Guardian this morning, and thought of you - because of course the need for Spaced Learning was one of the points you brought up in your final piece at the conference this week.

What they've done at that school is an incredible accomplishment. I'm getting in touch to see if they can speak at future events.

Thanks for your contribution this week,


Donald Clark said...

Let's flesh this out a little. I don't equate 'Teacher' or 'Trainer' qualifications with degrees in psychology.

Teacher training qualifications are low on empirical psychology. In practice schools have readily embraced learning styles, Brain Gym, Mozart effect and dozens of other fictitious theories without blinking. Teachers do very little reading in this area and the educational Journals have been criticised as being full of armchair theorising.

With trainers, the typical 'train the trainer' course is a mishmash of outdated, non-empirical, 50 year old theory from Gagne, Maslow, Kirkpatrick etc. With CIPD qualifications there's a surfeit of faddish, non-empirical nonsense. This is an organisation that still runs NLP courses.

As for teaching, training and HR being full of professional psychologists, this is far from true. there are very few of these overall.

These is, indeed, an anti-scientific bias, I fell, in HR, which eschews the empirical approach to problem solving. This is why so much of the quoted theory is 50 years out of date.

Anonymous said...

I do not know if I should be speaking about this approach among such accomplished professionals. I am tempted to speak my mind as I have benefited from an earlier post on the same subject.

An year ago I was struggling to make my daughter learn alphabets. It was getting frustrating as she would learn these and then after a while she would not recognize most of them, I had already started thinking about attention disorders when I came across your article and started reinforcing the learning at shorter intervals initially, then increasing the intervals. It was a great relief as she quickly memorized the alphabets and my worries regarding her attention spans were put to rest. Thanks for these wonderful articles.

Recently, I realized something about brain through a personal experience. Every time I would go for PTA to kids' school I would call home to ask son which was his section. This time I fixed in my memory that my both kids have their sections within the first 3 alphabets, that are B and C. Brain registered this and this simple method solved a long-standing problem. Association of facts makes learning simple and easy to recall as it seems the information that is not used often is swiftly dumped in some inaccessible section.

The spaced practice regularly digs out the information it seems till it probably associated with some thing that makes it more permanent learning. As I write this I remember my mother waking me up at four in the morning and giving me a rap on the head for snoozing with the History book on my desk. God, that is what made me learn the perpetual threat of flunking and the humiliation associated with it!
Thanks again this space helps me in becoming a better teacher to my kids.

Donald Clark said...

Thanks Rina
It's great to get some personal reflections on these issues. Once you get these techniques fixed by habit, I believe it accelerates your personal learning. My own recent experience has been in learning Egyptian hieroglyphics. I go there every year and it's been great to get a deeper appreciation of the language I've seen in dozens of sites. Simple, regular mental rehearsal works wonder in learning. My own favourite time for rehearsal is just before I pop off to sleep. Simply recalling what I've tried to learn that day is both interesting and effective in 'fixing' it in my long-term memory.

Anonymous said...

Hi Donald

First off, I read your blog regularly and find it a great antidote to the twaffle that infects the world of education. So thank you. I'm into spaced practice as an approach that actually works, but I wondered if you've read the comments left on the TES website by my fellow 'educators'. Its no wonder results won't change!

John G