Temporal Spacing and Learning

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Studies going back a century and more have found that spacing learning episodes across time sometimes enhances memory. The so-called spacing effect is the topic of hundreds of articles, and one might assume that we know all we need to know about it. However, the subtitle of an article on spacing effects that Frank Dempster published in American Psychologist in 1988 — "A case study in the failure to apply the results of psychological research" — remains appropriate now. Whether one looks at classrooms, instructional design texts, or language learning software, there is little sign that people are paying attention to temporal spacing of learning. Before pointing fingers, it is reasonable to ask: exactly what advice can we offer with confidence? Reviewing the literature, our research team (which includes John Wixted and Shana Carpenter from University of California, San Diego, along with the three ofus), supported by Institute of Education Sciences concluded: "not very much" (Cepeda, et al., in press). Despite numerous papers, very few researchers have examined memory after retention intervals of even one week. In some pioneering studies, Harry Bahrickshowed that long inter-study spacing can enhance learning over years, but he trained subjects to a criterion of mastery on eachsession, thus allowing study time to grow with spacing. All in all, we concluded that psychology could not yet offer specific advice about how to make the most efficient use of study time. Moreover, research has focused heavily on recall of word lists, and some have suggested that more complex or less "rote" forms of learning might not show spacing benefits at all. Our team has set about seeking to close some of these various gaps in knowledge to allow a translation of basic spacing research into practical contexts.

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Citation / Publisher Attribution

APS Observer, v. 19, issue 30, p. 38.