Memory fascinates me, I am constantly on the lookout for ideas to helps students retain information. I want to start with a few questions; how many lessons do you walk into where a starter activity is based on the content from the previous lesson? I would imagine that this is very common. How often do you walk into a lesson and see a starter based on content that was covered 6, 12 or even 18 weeks ago? What would students find more difficult, a starter based on something they did in the previous lesson or a starter based on something they covered weeks ago? The answer is likely to be the starter based on older content and the fact that they find it more difficult is the absolute key to building a more durable memory.
There are many posts on the principles of spacing and interleaving that go into far more detail with regards to relevant research and so I promise to keep the preamble brief. It is the practical solutions which are most important to me. This post is fuelled primarily by a fantastic article by Bjork and Bjork and sections of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Firstly, I want to address spacing which in essence is increasing the time in between delivering content. What many people recognise as traditional curriculum design is where content is taught in discrete topics. Students sit and end of unit test and then may not revisit the content until the terminal assessment at the end of year. A curriculum designed with spacing in mind aims to spread the learning out so that students have to recall information at greater intervals. For example, in science they may do a lesson on current, followed by a lesson on osmosis etc. At first, this is a frightening concept because immediately teachers are thinking that students will struggle to keep track of all the information, but this struggle is essential. To quote Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, ‘Rapid-fire practice leans on short term memory. Durable learning, however, requires time for mental rehearsal and the other processes of consolidation.’ When delivering a curriculum structured in the traditional way, students rely too heavily on their short term memory and so may perform well on the end of unit test but when trying to recall the key information in the distant future they will struggle.
Interleaving two or more subjects or skills has a significant impact on retention of knowledge. This is the process of inserting content into lessons to challenge them to recall knowledge out of synchronisation. The big draw backs are that the progress is slower and students find it confusing which makes it unpopular with teachers. However, I defy anyone to read pg48-50 of Make it Stick:The Science of Successful learning and not be fully convinced by the concepts. In short, one experiment with interleaved practise showed an increase of 215% in performance on a final test. ‘The research shows unequivocally that mastery and long term retention are much better if you interleave practice rather than you mass it.’
There are some fantastic articles in relation to spacing and interleaving which are referenced below. They are all well worth a read if you can find time.
Here are 12 solutions for embedding the principles of spacing and interleaving:
- Plan starter activities based on content from previous units.
- Design schemes of learning which factor in time to reteach/review content.
- Less terminal revision, more reviewing during units.
- Use cumulative exams and quizzes throughout the unit.
- Explain the evidence behind the methodology to get buy in from students and parents.
- Mix up the order of practice problems for greater retention.
- When planning learning, vary practice: -Teacher input –Student recall – Application.
- Pilot spaced learning with a group and compare outcomes with a similar group.
- Multiple exposures –students need 3-4 exposures to information over time.(Hattie)
- Use programmes like Quizlet for frequent low stakes quizzes.
- Use PLCs to identify common weaknesses and interleave questions related to the weaknesses.
- Collapse lessons periodically to provide spaced practice on common areas of weakness.
Make it stick:The Science of Successful Learning – Peter C Brown, Henry L Roediger III, Mark A McDaniel.
Learning: Chaprter 3: Making Things Hard on Yourself, But in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning. Elizabeth L Bjork and Robert Bjork
Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354-380. DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.132.3.354.
Cepeda, N. J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J. T., & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science, 19, 1095-1102. DOI : 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02209.x.
Spacing and Interleaving of Study and Practice: Shana K. Carpenter Iowa State University.
Bahrick, H. P., Bahrick, L. E., Bahrick, A. S., & Bahrick, P. E. (1993). Maintenance of foreign language vocabulary and the spacing effect. Psychological Science, 4, 316-321. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467- 9280.1993.tb00571.x.