If the spacing effect is so great, why is nobody using it?

28 February 2022 by John Helmer

There are few things in learning theory that everyone in learning and development agrees on. Let me rephrase that: there is almost nothing in learning theory that everyone agrees on. We have a disputatious culture. We like a debate. We like nothing better, in fact, than a knockdown drag-out bare-knuckle Twitter pile-on about issues that matter not one jot to people outside the field. Added to this, marketers have found over the years that a fairly reliable strategy for garnering clicks on social media is to stage a takedown of some or another tenet of instructional lore.

That being said, there is one of these tenets that has kept its hold and retains pretty much unanimous acceptance today among wise heads in learning. It’s the spacing effect

So why this rare outbreak of consensus? Well, mostly because the science is so strong. It begins with Hermann Ebbinghaus in the 1880s, and a foundational insight: we forget most of what we encounter along a predictable, exponential curve – the Forgetting Curve. The only sure way to escape this curve and give our learnings sticking power, Ebbinghaus and his adherents say, is to repeat, rehearse and above all practice them at regular intervals.

In a field that has suffered particularly badly from the recent ‘replication crisis’ in science (many key experiments from the psychological literature have failed to be successfully reproduced in recent years), Ebbinghaus stands out for the replicability of his results. Multiple studies, down the decades, have confirmed his initial insight. 

Cognitive psychology, when it got going in the 1960s, further backed up the theory, giving a mechanism to explain how and why the effect works – with the spacing of learning helping to move our recollections from short-term (or working) memory into the long-term store. Neuroscience, in the last 20-30 years has added further weight to these arguments. 

Contrary to what other bloggers might tell you, there are no magic formulas for learning; no set of magic numbers or acronyms or pyramidal lists of abstract nouns that will guarantee success. But if there is one principle from learning science we definitely don’t want to forget, it’s the spacing effect.

So why, you might wonder, if it’s so good, does nobody use it?

Perhaps I should qualify that slightly. In actual fact, the spacing effect is used every day. By ordinary people like you and me. It is highly likely that you would have used it in your own life to, say, pass a driving test, learn a musical instrument, or study for an exam. At these times you will have fallen into that mode of learning instinctively or on the advice of a teacher without being conscious in any way that you were deploying techniques that have the backing of cognitive psychology.

When there is a skill or competence we really have to learn to do because we will be called on to perform it in public, perhaps in a pressured situation where there is a risk to our personal safety, self-esteem, or livelihood — performing a piano solo on stage in front of an audience, maybe, flying a plane, or giving a Ted talk—then we fall back on this mode of learning: we repeat the thing we have to perform regularly. We try to notice the parts where we make mistakes and home in on those mistakes for further practice. We test ourselves at regular intervals. We use spaced practice.

This almost failsafe technique isn’t much used in formal instruction. Certain teachers might coach their pupils in spaced practice as a revision technique, but its use is, generally speaking, very ad hoc – and perhaps necessarily so, in former times, since it relies so heavily on what happens after the learner has left the school (or the training room). 

These difficulties associated with the bricks-and-mortar context of 20th Century education and training ought to just melt away in the always-connected world we live in today. Learning technology now provides tools that make it almost easy to instrument a system in which the spacing effect can set the rhythm and tempo of learning interactions and programs that treat learning as a process, not an event.    

So if the science is solid, and the technology to support it is readily available, why has practice not been followed? Very few organizational learning programs make use of the spacing effect, currently. 

There is never one reason alone why good ideas are slow in taking off, but here are two that might be contributing factors. One is an issue of mindset, the other of semantics.

Firstly, the mindset of training ever since Taylorism made it central to organizational development in the early years of the 20th Century has tended to be dominated by considerations of efficiency rather than effectiveness. How quickly can we train people, and how many can we put through the program without breaking the bank, tended to be the way of thinking. The rise of digital technology gave a huge boost in efficiency, just at the moment when drivers such as increased regulation and the move from products to services created the need for more training. As a result, the first generation of learning systems were primarily admin-driven, and learning design only got to influence their design with the relatively recent emergence of LXPs. We’re at the beginning of applying learning science to the architecture of these systems.

Secondly, there is a problem of semantics. We tend to call a lot of things learning that aren’t really learning. Under the rubric of the L-word, L&D departments deal with large amounts of stuff which is really knowledge management or company comms, or which can be better handled by supplying resources and information within a workflow – stuff that really does not require a mechanism for getting knowledge into long term memory. Everything tends to become a course, where a bit of early triage might separate out the things that really require deep learning from those that don’t. This latter category – where learners need to acquire a new skill or change behavior and attitudes – is where we might want to target the use of spaced practice. Let’s be honest, so-called ‘sheep-dip’ training or ‘one-and-done’ is cheaper, easier to do, and probably easier to sell to the business. And in many cases will get the job done. But where learning really needs to be effective, and long-lasting – there it is worth making the extra effort to deploy the spacing effect. Because we know, not only instinctively but also empirically, that it works.              

 

Find out more about the spacing effect for organizational learning in our newest whitepaper, ‘The Spacing Effect: Harnessing the Power of Spaced Practice for Learning That Sticks‘.

 

John Helmer
Consultant

John Helmer FLPI is a writer, speaker, podcaster and communications consultant. He runs and presents the acclaimed fortnightly podcast The Learning Hack, which features conversations with leading figures in learning in the US and UK.

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