Learning over time with breaks and repetitions helps us remember more. However, even though this spacing effect has been known since the 1800s, it is not widely recognized.
Breaks are beneficial
This is demonstrated in a study of 36 children aged 6-7. The children were divided into three groups. The first group must have had a tough time because in just one day, they had four sessions on how nutrients moved from plants to animals in different ecosystems. The second group had these four sessions spread over two consecutive days, with two sessions on one day and two on the next. The third group, on the other hand, was taught about food chains once a day for four consecutive days.
Breaks yielded the most learning
Before the teaching was conducted, the researchers gave the children a pretest to assess their prior knowledge of food chains. Exactly one week after the children had received their last teaching session, they were tested again. The food chains used in this test had not been a part of the teaching. The children had to transfer what they had learned about food chains to a new ecosystem.
Children who had spread the teaching over four days performed significantly better on the basic questions than children who had been presented with all the material in one day. For more complex questions, the children taught over four days also performed better than the children in group 2. Working with the same topic over four days instead of two seemed to increase the ability to generalize complex relationships. Deep learning was enhanced, a goal stated in the Norwegian curriculum.
Teaching with few breaks
Many parents are not aware that children need breaks when helping them with homework. The same goes for many educators. Instead, they teach topic by topic, also known as “massed learning,” often in double sessions. It’s only when a test is approaching that it’s time to review. Many studies are also designed this way. Students concentrate on a subject or area for a few weeks or months, take a test, and then never look back.
The discovery that hasn’t been put into practice
Some researchers believe the spacing effect is one of the most overlooked findings in psychology ever. It involves groundbreaking work from 1885 that is still cited in the world’s leading journals almost every time memory is the topic. It describes a crucial factor in how new knowledge is stored in memory, and more recent research has supported this discovery through molecular biological studies on memory and nerve cells.
Ebbinghaus was right
The researcher behind this discovery was the German professor Hermann Ebbinghaus. In his memory studies, he was extremely thorough and conducted all experiments with himself as the test subject. He created 2300 nonsense words consisting of consonant-vowel-consonant combinations and had no meaning. Through experiments that took seven months with up to three experiments per day, he discovered a forgetting curve.
Already after 20 minutes, many of the nonsense words he had memorized were forgotten, and half were forgotten within an hour. A day later, he remembered only 25%, but these words were not easily forgotten. What he remembered for a whole day seemed to have been stored in his memory. These experiments have been repeated in more recent times, and the results were almost identical.
Repetition is important
Ebbinghaus also investigated how repetition affected memory, and the results showed that he remembered many more words if he repeated a list several times with breaks between each practice than when he practiced for a similar length of time without breaks. This effect is called “the spacing effect,” hereinafter referred to as the spacing effect. He also discovered that what he focused on at the beginning and end of a session was easier to remember than what he worked on in the middle. It was also easier to remember words that could be associated with something meaningful.
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