Giving learners space and time

In posts on SMS (text messaging) and Twitter, I’ve mentioned how delivering elearning at spaced intervals can be used to enhance transfer. This idea isn’t new and it’s called spaced repetition (among other things).

The spacing effect

Spaced repetition is an instructional method that exploits the spacing effect. The spacing effect describes the observation that instruction which is repeated at intervals which are farther apart in time have a greater impact on improving memory than repetitions closer together in time  (Ebbinghaus, 1885).  In other words, you’re more likely to remember something if you review it just as you’re on the verge of forgetting it.

Spaced repetition has been studied for many years by  cognitive psychologists, including  Landuaer & Bjork (1978) and Melton (1970). Its implementation continues to be explored and expanded on (Thalheimer, 2006; Kerfoot, 2007a, 2007b, 2008a, 2008b, 2008c, 2009a, 2009b, 2009c).

What can be  repeated?

  • Presentation material
  • Questions or learning challenges that require learner activity (retrieval practice)
  • Both presentation  and  practice

Some general guidelines

  • Repeating retrieval practice is thought to be more effective than repeating presentation material
  • The challenge of retrieval is thought to  solidify learning, so repetition over time is better than immediate repetition
  • Expanded intervals  (e.g., initial short intervals of repetitions followed by longer intervals) may be desirable when learners receive less feedback, but in general, interval spacing’s not an exact science

(Thalheimer, 2006).

Maximizing learning, minimizing forgetting

Spaced repetition is designed not just to maximize what people learn but to minimize what they forget (Thalheimer, 2006). According to the spacing effect theory, during a course, training module, or other “learning events,” your memory is primed to retain information; however, as soon as the learning events stop you enter your forgetting phase. Unfortunately, the learning events often occur during formal learning and the forgetting phase is often on the job, absent a call to actually practice what you’ve learned (Thalheimer, 2006).

Spaced repetition, online and mobile

using spaced repetition in mlearningThe ability to automate message delivery makes the internet a very useful tool for deploying  spaced repetition.  In one implementation, such as used by  SpacedEd,  a learning course is delivered via questions and answers. Questions are sent in small online bits (e.g., one or two questions a day) via email, the Web, or an RSS feed.  A learner receives immediate feedback on his or her answers and questions are cycled based on the learner’s success. For example, questions repeat several times. If a learner gets a question wrong, it repeats sooner. If a learner gets a question right one or more times in a row, it’s “retired.” When all questions have been retired, you’ve completed the course.

Some other online programs that use spaced repetition in one form or another, as part of their learning platform include:

More opportunities to create mental models

Repeating learning material  during a period of time when you’re working on different projects may allow you to relate the  material to different contexts. The thought is that you’ll be more likely to remember the learning material by viewing it from different perspectives (Thalheimer, 2006).

Not just the facts

While spaced repetition is often associated with remember-type learning challenges, this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. As noted by Thalheimer (2006), although questions can be repeated verbatim, other permutations are possible.

For example, repetitions can center around:

  • stories or case studies that are different yet explore the same concepts/principles
  • simulations
  • role-play scenarios (such as in the DialogCoach system)
  • discussion topics
  • collaboration challenges
  • reflections and action plans

An instructor also can deliver a repeated learning challenge using different delivery methods (e.g., text, audio, video, etc.).  Spaced repetition is readily delivered via mobile devices and it’s probably the perfect complement to just-in-time learning.


Ebbinghaus, Hermann (1885). Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology. Retrieved from

Kerfoot BP, Baker HE, Koch MO, Connelly D, Joseph DB, Ritchey ML. (2007a). Randomized controlled trial of spaced education to US and Canadian urology residents. Journal of Urology, 177, 1481-1487.

Kerfoot BP, DeWolf WC, Masser BA, Church PA, Federman DD. (2007b). Spaced education improves the retention of clinical knowledge by medical students: randomized controlled trial. Medical Education, 41:23-31.

Kerfoot BP, Armstrong EG, O’Sullivan PN (2008a). Impact of item clustering on interactive spaced education. Medical Education, 42,1115–1116.

Kerfoot BP. (2008b). Interactive spaced education versus web-based modules for teaching urology to medical students: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Urology, 179, 2351-2357.

Kerfoot BP, Armstrong EG, O’Sullivan PN. (2008c). Interactive spaced education to teach the physical examination: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 23(7),973-8.

Kerfoot BP. (2009a) Learning benefits of online spaced education persist for two years. Journal of Urology, 181(6):2671-3.

Kerfoot BP, Brotschi E. (2009b). Online spaced education to teach urology to medical students: a multi-institutional randomized trial. American Journal of Surgery, 197(1),89-95.

Kerfoot BP, Kearney MC, Connelly D, Ritchey ML. (2009b) Interactive spaced education to assess and improve knowledge of clinical practice guidelines: a randomized controlled trial. Annals of Surgery, 249(5),744-9.

Landauer, T. K., & Bjork, R. A. (1978). Optimum rehearsal patterns and name learning. In M. Gruneberg, P. E. Morris, & R. N. Sykes (Eds.), Practical aspects of memory (pp. 625–632). London: Academic Press.

Melton, A. W. (1970). The situation with respect to the spacing of repetitions and memory. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 9, 596–606.

Spitzer, H. F. (1939). Studies in retention. Journal of Educational Psychology, 30, 641–657.

Thalheimer, W. (2006, February). Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research Says. Retrieved July 13, 2010, from

2 responses to “Giving learners space and time

  1. Pingback: Life hacks for learning « Instructional Design Fusions

  2. Pingback: mHealth and Patient Education for the 83% | Instructional Design Fusions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s