Spaced practice: The 130 year-old trick for making training memorable

Posted on Apr 27, 2016

Learning strategies

If there was a simple way you could help learners retain more information over long periods of time would you use it?

One of the earliest pieces of research into memory and learning identified a technique called spaced practice. It significantly improves the recall of information and it could be the key to achieving better long-term results from your training.

What is spaced practice?

Hermann Ebbinghaus , a pioneering memory researcher was the first person to document what he called “the forgetting curve” in his 1885 paper Über das Gedächtnis, translated as “On Memory".

The Forgetting curve is the basis for spaced practice

He observed that the rate of forgetting is highest immediately after learning happens. After only a day, two thirds of the information learned is gone.

The original experiments that Ebbinghaus performed were based on remembering nonsense syllables. However, it also works with basic skills like typing as well as remembering facts and processes.

By revisiting the learning, you bring the level of recall back to the top of the graph and the rate of forgetting reduces after each visit.

The key finding was that if you space the practice of the learning out at longer and longer intervals, the curve eventually flattens out and knowledge is retained more effectively.

Further reading:

How can it help me?

As an L&D professional, you want your learners to retain information because it’s valuable and because they can build on it in the future when developing advanced skills.
It’s not going to be a silver bullet that fixes issues or turns around poor performance on its own. The best way to see a real impact from spaced practice is to make small tweaks to your course design and implementation.

Any area where skills are going to be used over the long-term will benefit from better knowledge retention. Skills development and sales & product knowledge training are two areas that lend themselves well to spaced practice.

You could introduce the technique to induction and training on company culture in order to better reinforce a message.

It’s also useful in training for real events that happen rarely but where knowledge retention is key. First aid or fire safety both require specific knowledge that is rarely used in everyday life.

Spaced practice will help learners absorb this type of knowledge and have it ready when it’s needed most.

How can I put spaced practice into action?

Make your training stick by putting the spacing effect to work with these practical steps:

  • Find the key facts and processes
  • Break the key facts down into individual sections
  • Schedule reviews of the small sections
  • Include reviews of key sections in subsequent courses

Some of these tasks will already be part of your learning design process. You may already have the building blocks of a good spaced practice approach.

An example of a spaced practice for elearning

We’ll show you one way you can put the process into action. We’re going to take a fire safety compliance course and give your learners the benefit of spacing effect.

  • Find the key facts and processes and break them down

You identify the following areas that are critical to fire safety training:

  • The fire triangle
  • Precautions to take
  • Fire alarms
  • Evacuation procedure
  • Types of fire
  • Types of fire extinguisher

Then you dive deeper into one of the key parts of the course: Types of fire extinguisher.

  • Water
  • Dry powder
  • Foam
  • CO2

You design a series of learning interactions to teach learners when to use each extinguisher. They range from simple multiple-choice questions, to infographics, to learning games featuring the different extinguisher types.

You then repeat the process for all the key areas.

  • Schedule reviews of the small sections

Now you have the fundamental pieces of training, you can design a learning schedule that incorporates spaced practice.

Spaced practice can help your learners retain more information and doesn't have to be difficult

You send out an email to learners who need the fire safety training. Your Learning Management System (LMS) can track when they access and complete the course for the first time.

An automated email is sent to each learner 24 hours after they complete the training. A link is provided to a short learning course that reviews the key information from the course.
48 hours after the learner has completed their review a new link is sent with another short review of the fire extinguisher types.

A week after the initial training, invite learners by email to join a discussion on types of fire extinguishers in the organisations internal chat system.

  • Include reviews of key sections in subsequent courses

One month after the training, a new course launches as part of the health and safety programme. Before the course begins, there is a review of the fire safety training including the types of extinguisher and a short assessment.

After tracking the assessment, any knowledge gaps are identified and the process can be repeated with the learning interactions adjusted appropriately.
That’s one way of using an LMS infrastructure to get the benefit from the spacing effect.

Can I apply it to my existing learning?

Yes, as long as you have the relevant information available in the right sort of format. Updating your courses to include elements of the spacing effect is also possible.
We've done some research into learners who use our Launch&Learn LMS and how long they leave between visits.

Interval between visits Same day 1 day 2 days 7 days 8-14 days 121-364 days
% of learners 70% 20% 10% 3% 11% 11%

Around 70% of people return to their courses twice in a day, 20% return the next day, and 10% after 2 days. This drops off until the second week when 11% of people return, falling again until we group together everyone returning after 121 days up to a year which represents 11%.

These figures might not be representative of your own employees patterns, but you could do a similar analysis to see how they’re returning to courses using your own LMS.

Many learners are already returning at suitably spaced intervals. Tracking of completion and assessment is also already taking place in most LMS’s.

With some minor tweaks to your approach, it's possible to benefit from the spacing effect.

There have been entire papers written on why the spaced practice theory hasn't been put into practice, but there's no clear reason. The future of elearning is going to offer many more opportunities to get real benefits from learning theories using new technology. Spaced practice will come into its own when automation becomes easy, and that point is getting very close.

More and more adaptive learning and personalisation is becoming possible. Mobile devices are more capable and widely used than ever before. Learners are able and willing to access online learning any time.

Now is the time to start taking advantage of the possibilities that technology introduces, rather than using the technology for its own sake.

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