Space invaders

Sometimes, out of the blue, one of my blog posts really hits the mark.

Such was the case recently with Great and small in which I had a go at redefining our pedagogical terminology.

While the post only attracted a few comments – cheers Neil, Dani and Rob – my friend Helen Blunden observes that barely anyone does that any more. To her point, I was contacted via other means by readers who wanted to thank me for sharing my semantics with them.

That was very rewarding, and it has encouraged me to do it again!

Aliens lined up in the style of the video game Space Invaders.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the spacing effect.

And when I say “thinking about”, I mean getting thoroughly confused. Over the years I’m sure we’ve all encountered phrases such as distributed learning, spaced repetition, retrieval practice and variations thereof; but it has become apparent to me that many of us conflate these terms.

So I’ve spent a typically disproportionate amount of time trying to untangle the meanings of these phrases, and it is these semantics I wish to share with you now.

The spacing effect

I consider the spacing effect an umbrella term describing the improved outcomes achieved by separating learning activity over time.

The foremost example is spaced presentation or distributed learning whereby the content to be learned is chunked and consumed periodically:

A pink block flowing over time to a blue block flowing over time to a green block.

This approach contrasts with massed presentation whereby the content is consumed all in one hit, as per a crammer the night before an exam:

A pink block followed immediately by a blue block followed immediately by a green block.

Science says while the crammer might do well on exam day, they’d retain more in the longer term if they were to split their study across the semester. And this makes sense to me, as the cognitive load is reduced in each session, and I presume the time intervals accommodate further cognitive processing that embeds the concepts deeper in memory.

Reinforcement

Note that my example of the spacing effect above didn’t involve the repetition of content; but it may well have.

Spaced presentation of the same chunks is known as spaced practice or spaced rehearsal or spaced repetition or distributed practice:

A pink block flowing over time to another pink block flowing over time to another pink block.

This approach contrasts with massed practice or massed rehearsal whereby the content is repeated in one hit, again as per a crammer the night before an exam:

A pink block followed immediately by another pink block followed immediately by another pink block.

When the duration of the time intervals between repetitions increases, it is known as expanding practice or expanding rehearsal:

A pink block flowing over time to another pink block flowing over a longer time to another pink block.

The testing effect

If the repeated content is presented in the form of active recall, the approach is known as spaced retrieval practice or simply spaced retrieval and it’s covered by the sub-umbrella term the testing effect:

A pink block flowing over time to a pink block with a question mark flowing over time to another pink block with a question mark.

This approach contrasts with massed retrieval practice whereby the content is repeatedly recalled in one hit, as per rote learning:

A pink block followed immediately by a pink block with a question mark followed immediately by another pink block with a question mark.

When the duration of the time intervals between active recalls increases, it is known as expanding retrieval practice:

A pink block flowing over time to a pink block with a question mark flowing over a longer time to another pink block with a question mark.

While the recall device might be a quiz, it might also be a case, debate, game, simulation, on-the-job assignment… whatever demands the retrieval of the concepts from memory.

It’s worth noting the rather unhelpfully labelled spaced learning is a specific approach to spaced retrieval whereby the first presentation is followed by a 10-minute interval during which the learner undertakes a distractor activity (e.g. shooting hoops), then an active recall session such as a quiz, then another 10-minute distractor activity, then the final session in which the learner applies the knowledge in the form of a task.

A pink block flowing over 10-minutes' time with a basketball icon to a pink block with a question mark flowing over another 10-minutes' time with a basketball icon to another pink block with a question mark.

In today’s hybrid and hyperbusy working environment, I feel the timing has never been better to leverage the spacing effect in our instructional design.

Instead of a 3-hour long class or a 45-minute long e-learning course, why not chunk the content and deliver it over time?

This approach enables our target audience to weave it into their work day… and make it stick.

A chart featuring The Spacing Effect, within which is Reinforcement, within which is The Testing Effect.

8 thoughts on “Space invaders

  1. First time subscriber here…thank you for this article! I’ve learned such a valuable lesson. I have not heard those terms before, and I thank you for your interpretation and clear definitions. Definitely something to think about when planning lessons!

  2. Hey Ryan Thanks for the post – great Just tried to post a long comment but it said can’t be posted – all good but keen to share with you anyway as I am excited about the distinction :) Have copy and pasted below. Have a great week! Em

    Great article Ryan and thanks for capturing your reflections. Funnily enough I have been musing on timings and spacing of learning recently too. A few years ago I was speaking a lot about the new finish line of learning to give people the sense that we need to expand the learning time frame now with many people using spaced learning more and more the assumption then is that the finish line of learning has moved. I had an ah-ha at the weekend that for me the finish line of learning isn’t when people finish the learning it’s when the behaviour has changed therefore when we think about spaced learning and phasing learning over time we need to be thinking about how people apply in the real world and go beyond whether people can remember, recite, explain it or retrieve it cognitively are they actually doing it behaviourally. Just because we shift the learning overtime unless we shift our emphasis from content to behaviour as learning professionals we may be missing the bigger win of spacing interventions to change the way we support learners in creating behavioural change. Thanks Ryan am extending the topic with this thought…. the distinctions are a really great base to build on and I fully agree that we can end up down the semantics rabbit hole far too often!

  3. I like commenting on blog posts. It makes me think about what’s been said, and helps clarify that thinking. The spaced learning terminology is definitely all over the shop, but it’s not rocket science. I’ve recently started fortnightly slack channel posts on a couple of topics that space the learning out (I have accepted that I’m in a small group who will sit and read pages from a style guide to understand the correct way to use grammar and punctuation). I like your concept of the spacing effect. Whether it’s delivery, retrieval or testing, there’s plenty of evidence that it improves learning outcomes.

  4. @Laila – Thanks so much for saying so, Laila. I think it’s well worth thinking about.

    @emmaweberll – I agree with everything you’ve said, Em. Not only is learning a process rather than an event, it isn’t effectual if it isn’t accompanied by positive behaviour change. I would add that even after the behaviour change, reinforcement helps it stick.

    @divergentlearning – Cheers Neil, I’ve found the ESN a handy spaced learning vehicle too. Thanks for your continued comments!

  5. Ryan, great post. Makes so much sense. We applied this when I was at HBF Health and the results were quite remarkable. We didn’t change the content or structure of the learning modules, but we did space it out to a learn/apply/learn model. Staff turnover reduced, assessment scores increased considerably and we reduced the overall learning period from 12 to 6 weeks!

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