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Like the popular quote by Alexander Pope, “A little learning is a dangerous thing, drink deep or taste, not the Pierian spring, for their shallow droughts intoxicates the brain and drinking largely sobers us again.”

This is the idea behind the spacing effect as a technique that promotes deep learning. The spacing effect postulates that information is retained when it is presented repeatedly at certain intervals as opposed to cramming. This validates the quote by Alexander Pope that cramming and drinking large amounts of coffee in a bid to memorize to pass an examination is not learning. This is so because once the examination is over, all is forgotten.

 In the quest for effective teaching methods and strategies, educators have long sought ways to improve learning efficiency and long-term memory retention among students. One such effective tool in the arsenal of educational practices is the spacing effect.

This phenomenon has been researched extensively and over time the results have proven its validity. Incorporating this technique into learning would help educators unlock the full potential of their students at all levels and then redefine the way knowledge is acquired and retained.

The spacing effect is one of the ways to optimize learning efficiency in today’s modern educational setup. Any learning organization concerned with ensuring learning occurs and understands that it is not by burdening students with long study hours should leverage the spacing effect.

This spacing effect approach fosters a favorable and peaceful learning atmosphere for learners and educators alike. The result would be a stress-free environment where both learners and educators can thrive. Moreso, as students retain knowledge through this technique, they can build upon previous learnings and establish a firm foundation for continuous intellectual growth.

In this article, we will discuss the spacing effect, its application in education, real-life applications of this concept, and how to modify this concept to fit the unique learning pace or abilities of your students.

At the end of this blog post, readers will have a deep understanding of the spacing effect and learn ways to inculcate this practice in learning, thereby empowering and equipping their students to become true learners.

Understanding the Spacing Effect

Understanding the Spacing Effect is key for educators, students, and anyone interested in optimizing their learning and memory retention. The Spacing Effect is based on the discovery that information is absorbed and retained when it is presented at intervals over a certain period, compared to cramming or studying extensively in a single lesson. 

Key Points to Note About the Spacing Effect:

  • Memory Consolidation: When you learn something new, it is stored in your short-term memory and can easily be forgotten without reinforcement. Spaced repetition ensures that learners revisit the material at specific intervals, and allows for consolidation into the long-term memory, allowing the brain to consolidate the information into long-term memory, making it more durable and accessible over time. 
  • Improved Recall: Active retrieval practice is one of the principles of the spacing effect. Hence with spacing repetition, learners improve their ability to recall by constantly recalling information from memory during each spaced repetition application.
  • Optimal Timing: The intervals between review sessions are dependent on certain factors so it’s key to get it right. First here is the complexity of the topic, the learner’s familiarity with the topic, and the learning pace of the learners. Based on these factors the timing in spacing effect application is crucial to its success.
  • Versatility: The Spacing Effect is versatile and can be applied across various subjects, age groups, and learning contexts. It is effective for both academic learning and professional development and skill acquisition in the workplace.
  • Combination with Other Learning Strategies: The Spacing Effect works in tandem with other effective learning techniques, such as interleaved practice and active learning. Integrating these strategies can lead to more profound results such as enhanced understanding, improved problem-solving skills, and excellent knowledge retention.

Definition and History of the Spacing Effect

The Spacing Effect, also known as spaced repetition or distributed practice, is a learning phenomenon where information is proven to be better absorbed and recalled when it is presented strategically over some time, as opposed to cramming.

While the concept has been available for a while, its formal existence was acknowledged or discovered by a German psychologist, Hermann Ebbinghaus, who was one of the pioneers in the study of memory and learning. In the 1880s, he conducted groundbreaking experiments on his memory, where he discovered that the ability to recall items written on a piece of paper was accurate once he studied the items at intervals.

He found out that newly acquired information could easily fade away, and repeated exposure similar to the mere exposure effect enhances recall. His work is the foundation for understanding the benefits of spaced repetition in learning and memory.

Research and Studies Supporting the Spacing Effect

Since Ebbinghaus’s discovery of the spacing technique, other studies have been conducted that further validated the spacing effect. Let’s look at some of them.

Early Research: Ebbinghaus’s original experiments demonstrated that spaced repetition led to better memory retention and slower forgetting rates compared to massed repetition.

Modern Studies: Contemporary research using controlled experiments and real-world educational settings consistently demonstrates the superiority of spaced repetition over the massed practice. Studies have been conducted across various subjects and age groups, showing improved learning outcomes with spaced learning schedules.

Spacing and Recall: Research indicates that spaced repetition significantly improves recall and the ability to retrieve information from memory. The information encoded with spaced intervals is more easily accessible over time.

Long-Term Retention: Studies have shown that material learned through spaced repetition is more likely to be retained in long-term memory, enabling learners to recall information accurately after extended periods.

Enhanced Understanding: The Spacing Effect not only improves rote memorization but also fosters a deeper understanding of concepts, as learners have more opportunities to process and integrate information.

Explanation of the Underlying Cognitive Mechanisms

The science behind the Spacing effect concept and its validity can be traced to certain underlying cognitive mechanisms.

Memory Consolidation: When we learn new information, it can be easily forgotten because it is stored initially in short-term memory. However, consistent repetition pushes such information into the long-term memory and this makes it easy to recall. For instance, if you consider the nursery rhymes taught to children in kindergarten, you would realize that even as an adult you can still sing along.

Retrieval Practice: The retrieval practice involves asking students what they have learned from previous classes. During this process different students articulate what they remember, this further embeds the knowledge deeper, as they are hearing the same information from their peers in different forms.

This process during spaced intervals reinforces neural connections that make information recall easier in subsequent lessons.

How the Spacing Effect Enhances Learning

Overcoming the Forgetting Curve

Ebbinghaus’s forgetting curve showed that memory can decline rapidly after initial learning, spaced repetition mitigates this curve by representing the information at strategic intervals which reinforces information and prevents fading. 

Optimal Cognitive Load

Spacing out learning sessions prevents cognitive overload, which can clog the brain. So spacing allows learners to assimilate information in chunked-down pieces. This doesn’t overwhelm the memory and makes recall seamless.

Deeper Understanding

The Spacing Effect encourages learners to interact with learning, materials in detail during each review session. This repeated exposure allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the subject. 

Retention and Long-term Memory Consolidation

One of the primary ways the Spacing Effect enhances learning is by improving retention and long-term memory consolidation. When learners engage in spaced repetition, they are presented with the same information repeatedly at key intervals. The practice embeds the knowledge into the brain, and this makes recall easy with almost no effort. This is different from massed practice, which involves cramming information at a go, spaced repetition allows learners to visit information during optimal periods, which facilitates deeper learning and knowledge retention.

Improved Retrieval and Recall

The Spacing Effect significantly improves retrieval and recall of learned information, as the attempt to retrieve information consistently, stimulates the brain and makes it easier to recall. For instance, the same way you can recall your phone number or address is because of the number of times you have been asked, you automatically commit it to memory.

Comparison With Other Learning Strategies

The Spacing Effect is more effective when it comes to learning, unlike cramming and mass practice. When cramming learners put a lot of pressure on themselves to commit all the information they can to memory all in a bid to pass an exam or a test. 

While this may result in passing the exams, the crammed knowledge dissipates or fizzles out in a short while. 

Unlike spaced repetition which feeds knowledge to the brain in small easily absorbable bits at key intervals, this reinforces the information presented and fosters better long-term retention, which depicts effective learning. 

Read Also: Classroom Management Techniques for Effective Teachers

Strategies for Implementing the Spacing Effect

1. Spaced Repetition Technique

Spaced repetition is a method of learning that involves teaching learners intermittently with breaks in between. It can be likened to how you spoonfeed a toddler, After the first mouthful you wait until they swallow before introducing the second spoon and third spoon based on the pace at which the child can handle, instead of ramming it all down their throats, etc.

 The same applies to the spacing repetition technique. You introduce lessons or study materials to your learners at intervals which would be determined by their unique learning pace or learning agility. The gradual review and revisit of the learning information would enhance learners and result in maximal knowledge retention.

Benefits and Advantages

  • Improved Memory Retention: Spaced repetition enhances learning by helping learners retain information about the subject, being taught. Enhanced Recall: The pacing technique equips learners to recall information faster, as the approach(spaced repetition) to learning strengthens the memory recall pathways.
  • Time Efficiency: The multiple times spent reviewing lessons are shorter, as the lessons are usually chunked down into bite-size time-friendly pieces. Rather than cramming which would require a longer time to commit all that information to memory.
  • Deeper Understanding: Like the analogy shared earlier, adults still recall nursery rhymes simply because of the way it was taught. Spaced repetition fosters deep learning that stays with the learner for years after learning is over.


Practical Tips for Implementing Spaced Repetition

  • Flashcards: Use flashcards, they can be electronic or physical pieces with relevant information. You can use this when teaching.
  • Plan Ahead: Create a study schedule that includes spaced repetition to ensure that study sessions are spaced accordingly. You can use spacing software to achieve this and automate your spacing technique practice.


2. Interleaved Practice

Definition and Benefits

The interleaved practice involves teaching different topics within a study session, you can liken it to a buffet spread with assorted meals. This interchange of topics within a learning session is not only exciting for the learners but allows them to compare and contrast between different topics, and test their knowledge alternately on different topics, and the result is deeper learning and better retention.

The benefits of the interleaved practice include:

  • Interleaving practice stimulates the brain to make new connections due to consistently handling or deciphering a mix of related topics. This fosters critical reasoning skills in learners.
  • A study by Nate Kornell shows that students who undergo or have experienced the interleaving practice, have a deeper understanding of topics, compared to other students who only experienced conventional teaching methods. 
  • Lastly, interleaving helps learners create a mental connection between subjects. This deepens understanding of various topics and helps them understand complex topics faster due to the correlation they see in different subjects because of interleaving.

Examples of Interleaved Practice in Different Fields

  • Mathematics: In math, students can combine different types of problem-solving methods, to solve a question. For example, the topic in maths called BODMAS is an acronym for ‘Brackets, Order, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction. Students who are familiar with the interleaving practice in solving math problems would find it easy.
  • English Language:  When teaching this subject, you can focus on grammar, comprehension, punctuation, parts of speech, etc. at certain intervals during the study sessions.

Techniques for Incorporating the Interleaved Practice into Learning Routines

  • Create Mixed Problem Sets: Similar to how the examination at the end of a session would test various topics in the subject at a go. In the same way, you should ensure that each teaching session incorporates different topics within a learning session.
  • Use Different Study Materials: Use various study materials, that engage all the five senses, textbooks, videos, sensory materials, audio resources, etc. to present different topics during a single study session.
  • Administer quizzes: During study sessions, use quizzes/assessments to see which areas learners have a deep understanding of and areas of weaknesses. This would help define your area of focus in subsequent study sessions.

Applications of the Spacing Effect

Education and Academic Learning

Some strategies to leverage the Spacing Effect in education include:

  • Use spaced repetition when creating lesson plans. This would help you stick to the breaks in between learning sessions.
  • Pace study according to the learning agility of your students. This personalized approach would encourage learners and help them learn at their own pace without any pressure.
  • Administer assessments stimulate retrieval practice, which would help reinforce learning.
  • Apply Interleaved practice, as much as possible to different subjects, to foster deep learning and understanding.

How Educators Can Leverage the Spacing Effect in Teaching

Case Studies and Success Stories

Globally various educational institutions like Coursera have successfully implemented spaced effect in learning. The lessons are self-paced, and distributed over a period with breaks in between. Diverse topics are taught in each of the weekly sessions, quizzes are administered to test knowledge and foster retrieval practice. The result it has become the top site for effective learning and success stories from learners depict how they have been able to leverage this to land new jobs in a previously unfamiliar field after studying with Coursera. 

Real-Life Examples of the Spacing Effect in Professional Settings

In professional settings for example in the medical profession, there are different training sessions spaced apart to help them keep up to date with the latest trends in modern medicine and its applications. The same applies to industries that adopt various training and development programs in-house or outsource to encourage a deep understanding of their unique fields.

  • Professional Development and Skill Acquisition

In the context of professional development and skill acquisition, the Spacing Effect can play a crucial role in optimizing learning outcomes and improving job performance. This can be achieved by applying the spacing effects in various areas of learning relevant to the job.

This can be done by developing training plans that include every aspect of the spacing technique. This way you can create a more knowledgeable workforce not just by their qualifications but in practice. Leveraging spaced repetition, along with other effective learning strategies, would equip your employees and empower them to thrive in their areas of competencies while remaining adaptable to new challenges.

  • Enhancing Workplace Learning with the Spacing Effect

Some ways to enhance workplace learning with the Spacing Effect include:

  • Encourage and reward continuous learning.
  • Encourage microlearning, by delivering bite-sized training modules at strategic intervals to ensure better knowledge retention and application on the job.
  • Use spaced repetition in onboarding processes to help new employees become familiar with the concept absorb all the information shared and make them more effective in their roles.
  • Deliver periodic refresher courses to update employees on changing industry trends and practices.


Potential Challenges and Limitations

One potential challenge and limitation of this highly effective learning technique is that it requires repeated practice to complete. Many learners may find it monotonous or repetitive to go over the lessons repeatedly, especially for fast-paced learners. Sometimes there are instances where learners do not have all the time to practice spaced repetition and in that instance, they need to perfect learning within a short period.

Let’s take a look at other factors that can hamper the effectiveness of the spacing technique.

Factors Influencing the Effectiveness of the Spacing Effect

Instructor Mastery/Delivery: No matter how well-spaced a lesson is, if the instructor lacks mastery of the subject or if the learning delivery is unsuited for the learners in terms of age and agility the spacing effect technique would not be effective.

Learning Facility: If the learning environment is unfriendly or uncomfortable either due to factors like weather, geographical location, or a simply unsuitable facility, it will hamper the effectiveness of the spacing technique.

Learners’ Motivation/Preference: Applying the spacing technique to learners who are not interested in the subject or simply not motivated to learn would influence the effectiveness of the spacing technique. For example, applying the spacing technique to a financial class for learners who are only interested in content writing, but only applied for the class because it was either free or would boost their resume, would result in an exercise in futility.

Strategies to Overcome Common Challenges

  • Ensure you have the learner’s buy-in and interest in the subject being taught
  • Pay attention to your learning environment, and make sure it is age-appropriate and conducive to learning.
  • Train your instructors on tips to maximize the spacing technique and test their mastery of the subject.

Addressing Misconceptions and Doubts

While spacing is an effective method of learning, it is not always a guarantee for knowledge assimilation and deep learning.

It works in tandem with the learner’s agility, the instructor’s mastery and delivery of lessons, the learning environment, and the interest of the learners.

Tips for Maximizing the Spacing Effect

 Establishing personalized learning schedules: The first step to maximizing the benefits of spacing is to personalize your learning activities. This simply means that learning should be paced or presented based on the learner’s ability. This can only occur when you understand the individual learning agility of your students. After which you can either divide them into groups or pace your learning in a way that everyone can catch on.

Lastly, you then set smart goals to help you effectively gauge your progress, with your student as this would let you know if learning has occurred.

  • Incorporating varied and engaging learning materials

The best way to activate this is to use a mix of effective learning materials, that engage with all 5 senses, videos for sight, audio, for hearing, interactive materials, games for touch, etc., and relatable examples to further reiterate all that they are being taught.

  • Monitoring progress and adjusting learning strategies

The regular assessment would help you monitor and see if learning has truly occurred and also help you pinpoint areas where the students may need more support.

This would help you adjust your content and delivery style accordingly. Most importantly give feedback and recognize and reward the efforts of your learners.


The spacing effect is an effective learning technique, that fosters retention. It is a powerful learning technique that ensures that learning takes place with the ability to recall information over a long period.

The idea behind spaced repetition is that knowledge is presented in bite-sized, easy-to-understand pieces that learners can handle based on their learning agility. The result is usually an improved ability to recall, a deep understanding of the subject, and the ability to retain the information.

As an educator or trainer in your professional setting, embracing this technique would deliver impressive learning outcomes for your learners and also help you teach them to incorporate this method into their personal study schedule.

The spacing effect is not just a fad, it is backed by science, and embracing it would help you enjoy learning in whatever field you choose.

  • Angela Kayode-Sanni
  • on 16 min read


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