How to Incorporate Spaced Learning into Your Tutoring

Effective learning is what you remember, not just what you take in” – Peter Horneffer

So how do we help our students remember?

According to research, the most effective way to retain information is to use a technique called spaced practice.  Spaced practice is the idea that studying (revision) is more effective when spread out over time versus massed together just before testing (aka: cramming).  


And here’s the thing… your students won’t want to do it. Not at all.

But… it is the best way to move information from their working memory (which is very limited in its capacity) to long-term memory.       

One of my father’s mantras in life is that “everyone is a salesperson”. I have found that particularly helpful when ‘selling’ some of the more effective study strategies to students, and let me tell you… effective study strategies are a hard sell, especially spaced practice. My two best ‘sales strategies’ to sell spaced practice: exhibit the evidence and contain the commitment.

Exhibit the evidence

Spaced practice has over 100 years of research, with studies going back to 1885 where Ebbinghaus suggested that spacing out the reviews, with an increasing gap between them, helped memory formation. Googling “spaced practice vs massed practice” will provide plenty of options for powerful graphics to share. Show them a couple of different visuals for this. This data will be your best sales tool.

Contain the commitment

You will need to help scaffold this experience for them and provide a limited window of commitment. I always start by telling them that they are not studying any more (this is assuming they put a reasonable number of hours in when they do cram), but they are just spreading it out over time… same commitment in hours, just rearranging the timing.

I do warn them that this will feel really hard, but that’s when the good stuff is happening.  

We then get out a calendar with at least 2 weeks before the next unit test and begin filling in those short study times as if they were appointments they can’t miss, offering suggestions as to what to cover on which days. I might check in a couple of times in between sessions with a quick review question on what I know they covered that night or provide a little encouragement to keep up the good work.

The results from this (if they really stick with it) – well, let’s just say… they’re right in line with the 100+ years of research.

The tough job is convincing them to give it a go.


Further Resources: 

Spacing and Interleaving for Better Learning seminar

Learning to Study Using Spaced Practice handout for students

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