[Pedagogy-list] Article on the "Spacing Effect" for retention

Dixon, Mike mdixon4 at richmond.edu
Fri Jan 4 13:37:38 EST 2019

Happy new year everyone! While we get ready for a new semester, K-12 is already back at school this week (at least for my 15-year old daughter in Chesterfield). Their mid-term exams were canceled due to the early December snow, but teachers have been scheduling tests on that information…some with very little notice. She’s been frantically studying as she has three tests today. It seems my daughter has developed a habit I have tried to thwart: cramming the day/night before.

She challenged me to find evidence that regular reviewing is better than cramming. That’s a fair request. So I went digging. In trying to find an article that was understandable to a 15 year old but also useful to adults, I came across this one (below link) that describes the origins and benefits of the “spacing effect”.


In the past, I have encouraged my students through weekly pacing guides, reminders, etc. to review what they’re learning regularly. I chunk my course material so that none is overwhelming to retain over time (I teach primarily online at-present). I teach music history primarily, so it’s critical they retain all the way through. Regardless, I still see the results of cramming: reduced retention of previously learned information as the semester progresses. When I teach seniors, it’s less prevalent (perhaps they’ve figured it out), but it’s far worse with freshmen. It probably has to do with what this article references in its first sentence: “We are not taught how to learn in school, we are taught how to pass tests.”

I’ll be sharing this article with my daughter and explaining some of the references therein so she fully understands the concepts. I’m thinking about also sharing with my students at the beginning of the semester, in an effort to drive home how the brain works best and why cramming won’t work. As I consistently ask students to provide feedback on my course throughout the semester, I’ll also be adding a query on what practices they use to retain information they’re receiving in college classes. If I get enough valuable responses, I will share back what I get with the community.

Michael Dixon, Assistant Director
Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology
University of Richmond

ph: 804-289-8066 (direct)
ofc: 323 Boatwright Library (office)

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