Study Strategy: Spaced Practice

We’ve all done it in the run up to exams… in fact when most of us were at school there didn’t seem to be an alternative option. That thing was of course CRAMMING!

Everything you had learnt in the previous 3, 6 or 9 months was crammed into your head, over a finite period of time, in the hope that it all remained in short term memory until the exam paper was set out in front of you – then bingo – it would all come flowing out majestically!

In those days we didn’t know an awful lot about the science of learning, about the importance of consistently reviewing information in order to transfer it to long-term memory or about the difference between recognising material and being able to recall it. We just got used to the cram mentality – I even remember a friend of mine taking caffeine drugs to keep them awake for an ‘all night’ study session.

 The Science Bit

Thankfully the science has progressed and we now have concrete evidence of the benefits spacing out revision over time has over cramming. In the science of learning we call this debate ‘spaced practice v massed practice.’ Although, really there isn’t much of a debate. The evidence is conclusive – spaced practice (or the spacing effect) improves recall in almost all circumstances.

The concept of spacing has its roots in the late 1800s psychology and in the work of Ebbinghaus.

The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

In 1885 German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted, at the time, what was landmark research – he found that there is an exponential loss in the ability to recall information over time unless it is consistently reviewed. In other words, if we don’t review material we will forget it. Even though this might sound like common sense to most of us, for some reason we don’t always seem to help our young people apply this principle to their learning – and in particular to preparation for exams.

The forgetting curve appears simplistic but the principle behind it has, since the Ebbinghaus era, been well established in the literature.

We begin to forget almost immediately after the learning of new material. The more we review (at spaced intervals) the higher our chance of being able to recall the same information.

Spaced Practice in practice

When working with students I sometimes use the analogy of sport when talking about concepts like spaced practice.

Screen Shot 2018-03-14 at 19.50.26

For example, let’s say your child learns a new turn in football – the Cruyff turn. They learn the skill at training and plan to use it in the cup final in 3 months

Would they:

  1. Learn the turn, practice it that night, forget about it until the night before the final and then stay up through the night trying to remember how to do it (whilst getting very little sleep).
  2. Learn the turn, consistently practice it and by the time the final comes be proficient in how to do it.

Imagine these two scenarios – how do you think your child would perform on cup final day?

Now take that to a learning scenario – they are learning new concepts every day and often not revisiting them until it comes to the cup final – otherwise known as the exams!!

The reason spaced practice is so effective as a technique is that it provides us with a framework for ensuring material is transferred from short to long-term memory. When it’s in long-term memory we can dip in and retrieve it whenever we need – in this case, that time is during exams.

Ideally, spaced practice shouldn’t just begin when students approach exam time. To benefit fully from the spacing effect students should develop a ‘spaced planner’ immediately after learning, planning out, revisiting/reviewing/practicing the same topics at spaced intervals.

However, not all students will do this and to be fair many may not even know how effective this strategy actually is, never mind how to practically apply it.

As long as they begin the revision process early then there can still be enough time to ensure a number of reviews of the same material – thus enabling the transfer of knowledge and understanding to long-term memory. Of course there is a last resort – if your child has not completed any revision in the lead up to the exams then by all means tell them to cram!! Something is better than nothing.

Teenage Girl Happy With Good Exam Results

The reality is – cramming causes exam stress and a feeling of ‘loss of control.’ Spacing creates calm and a feeling of being in control. Think back to you last set of exams – which of those feelings would you have preferred?

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.


Study Strategy: Retrieval Practice

Having worked with 250,000 students over a 10-year period we are well versed in their needs and demands when preparing for exams.

We are particularly aware of the fundamental mistakes that can be made when it comes to learning and revision. As an interested parent, it will probably not come as a surprise to you to learn that two of the most common study strategies claimed by students to be effective for them, are in fact, according to evidence, the most ineffective. Those strategies are of course the comfort blankets of: re-reading notes and highlighting.

When students simply read and re-read their notes they are quite often fooling themselves: believing they know the material when in fact they often just recognise it. In the science of memory recognition is a fundamentally different concept to recall.

When students recognise material, it often gives them a false sense of security … “I’ve seen this information before, I get it, therefore I know it”. Recognition might work for the odd multiple-choice test but we should never rely on it! The acid test of whether a student really knows and understands material lies in their ability to be able to recall (or retrieve) the information from memory, essentially what cognitive scientists call retrieval practice.

The Evidence Base

There is now conclusive evidence from the world of the science of learning that retrieval practice (bringing information to mind) is extremely beneficial as a study strategy and, luckily, it is a very simple and equally powerful technique.

Fortunately, much of this plethora of research  is also very accessible to lay people (non41Xea-9egML._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_-1-academics)! For example, in his research, Roediger, (one of the authors of the excellent book – ‘Make it Stick’) found that retrieval practice helps with future retention; it enables students to identify gaps in knowledge quite quickly and produces better organization of knowledge.

Among others, Cranney et al (2009) and McDermott et al (2014) have also written on the benefits and effectiveness of retrieval practice as a strategy for learning and retention.

Practical Application

Retrieval practice can take a number of forms:

1. Quizzing (Individual or Peer)

Students should try self-generating questions on flashcards and, without looking at material, quiz themselves on it. Or better still – they could get together with a classmate or family member and do this. It’s imperative that they try to explain their thinking and elaborate on answers where possible.

2. Past Paper Questions

Test DayThey should take as many practice tests as possible. Past papers are easily found on exam body websites (one example: CCEA Past Papers ). It’s best if they set themselves up at home as if in an actual exam to become familiar with test conditions.

Make sure they review their answers to find out what they know and, more importantly, what they don’t know and need to re-learn or review again.

3. Recall on a Blank Sheet

They should put away all class materials, textbooks etc and recall from memory (e.g write or sketch) everything they know about a selected topic. It works best to do this as a pre-test (at the beginning of a study session) or after a break.

Retrieval practice is best used with spaced practice (spacing out study over time). In other words, test and retest to ensure key information is being remembered. We shall return to spaced practice in more detail in next week’s blog. If you’re interested in our Study System, it is based on the principles of spaced and retrieval practice. We will also be reviewing the evidence around the use of highlighters in a later blog! Stay tuned.

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.

Study Strategy: Deliberate Practice

Practice doesn’t always make perfect despite the popularity of this saying. However, deliberate practice (a term coined by Anders Ericsson) does lead to improvement and, ultimately, success.  According to Ericsson that means practicing activities that lead to maximizing improvement through development towards expert performance. This sounds complex and a little highbrow. Put more simply, it means the identification of strategies that work and practicing these in an efficient and effective way.

If you have read our first two blogs on mindset and neuroplasticity then you will appreciate the importance of understanding the amazing capacity of the human brain. More importantly, you will know that any innate talents (perceived or otherwise) are simply the starting point – not only can we learn new things, but we can become smarter. In fact, with the right guidance, support and coaching (or teaching), we can achieve more than is often thought possible.

Application to School

Does your child work really hard, put the effort in and yet doesn’t seem to ‘get anywhere’? Is s/he re-reading notes, highlighting information, spending hours studying and not making progress? If this is your child, s/he should be congratulated firstly, for having the motivation and determination to study. But, secondly, it is worth exploring with them why the hard work isn’t paying off. With study in particular there isn’t always a correlation between the quantity (number of hours) devoted to it and the quality of the end result. Deliberate practice plays a central role in a quality outcome.

Applied to schooling, deliberate practice involves the act of studying in a very strategic way, using evidence of what works. It is well-defined, specific, goal-directed and consists of repeated stretch and challenge. On this journey, progress is the goal. Deliberate practice therefore involves critical learning opportunities, especially in times of ‘failure’ or under-performance. In our culture, failure is typically associated with negative feelings, including shame and embarrassment. Elsewhere, in East Asia for instance, failure is embraced as a positive opportunity to learn.

What might deliberate practice actually look like for your child’s study patterns?

  1. It will involve a maximum 45-minute study session at any one time, followed by a 10-minute break and 5-minute review.
  2. It will involve interleaving, that is, changing the order in which topics are studied to guarantee more effortful learning. Homework practices would also benefit from this mixed ordering.
  3. It will involve the organization of study sessions that guide your child to recall knowledge and demonstrate his/her understanding, without the aid of study/text/notes.
  4. It will involve a spaced revision schedule, that is, the revision of new material on up to four occasions in order to create and strengthen new neural pathways, and then commit this to longer-term memory.

As a parent, you can be directly involved in these deliberate practices. Quiz your child about what they are learning. Quizzes can be fun! Challenge them to answer a past paper question. Encourage them to take a blank sheet of paper and to retrieve from memory, without the aid of study notes, something they have learned in class or have revised that day.

Studying should always involve specific goals rather than working towards a broad and general outcome. Not only will smaller more manageable chunks help with setting goals but this also helps your child to move from basic to more sophisticated goals.

Tune in to future blogs to hear more about our Ultimate Study System (built on evidence of what works, including deliberate practice), about the differences between recognition and recall, and how to design study sessions to maximize your child’s learning. Until next time …

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete.