An “Ah-Ha” Moment with Spaced Practice in the Classroom

I’m sometimes asked by other teachers how I show my students the positive effects of spaced practice. By definition, it takes time to see the results of spacing out your practice of material and this fact makes it more difficult to demonstrate in class. This past week, however, I was granted that perfect moment of instruction when it all came together and I was able to say, “See…I told you this stuff works.” 

Please allow me to set the scene. We began class one day this week by completing a ‘Last Lesson, Last Week, Last Month’ review. Here it is:

I combined answering these questions with the ‘Color Coding Recall Attempts’* strategy.

Pretty simple. Answer three questions from differing units of material spaced out over different amounts of time. Intuition tells me my students should remember the material from yesterday the best, then the information from last week, and finally, the material from last month should show the weakest ability to recall. It just makes sense. They learned about correlations 30 days ago. That’s a lot of time to forget. We covered the sleep cycle yesterday. They should still have some of that in their long-term memory. But, when I asked my students which grouping of questions they performed the best on, the overwhelming majority raised their hand for ‘last month’. Which group of questions showed their weakest ability to recall information? Last week. 

Interesting.

Why did they do the best on information covered a month ago? Why didn’t my students remember material from last week? 

The answer, I believe, is spaced practice. You see, the material in ‘last month’ was first covered 30ish days ago…but it was also revisited a week after the initial instruction when it was in the ‘last week’ category. Then, it was sporadically mentioned, when appropriate, during later instruction and on quizzes. So, by the time my students saw these three questions in the ‘last month’ grouping, they’d covered it at least three times in class. When I think about it like this, it makes total sense that they remembered this material the best. Ah-ha.

But, why did my students remember the material in ‘last week’ the worst? Well, we covered it around 7 days ago and hadn’t really revisited it yet. This certainly leaves ample time for forgetting, but not as much time as the material that they learned 24 hours ago (last lesson).

Being able to point this out to my students was quite powerful, I believe. They were able to see how spaced practice and retrieval practice are impactful learning strategies. It may take some time to set this explicit example up, but it’s worth it. My students need to see how to more effectively study and practice. This is one way I do this. 

The next step? In a few weeks, the ‘last week’ grouping will now be ‘last month’. I can’t wait to see how they do when we revisit this strategy. My prediction? They’ll perform better when it is ‘last month’ material…after a few more attempts at this material via class discussion and formative quizzing, the material should be much more durable in their memory.

How do you demonstrate spaced practice in your classroom?

How would you adapt this for your students?

*The gist of this strategy has my students first complete as many questions as they can using only their brain. They highlight these answers in yellow. Next, students use their class notes to answer any questions they didn’t know with their brain alone. They highlight these answers in blue. Finally, students use a buddy to answer and/or correct any questions still left unanswered. They highlight these answers in orange. This separation of answering allows students to see what they really know (in yellow), what their notes know (in blue), and what neither their brain nor their notes know (in orange). Hopefully, students next know what to study by focusing on the answers that are not in yellow, first. Also, students aren’t left with a false sense of what they really know. How often do students leave a class thinking they know all of the information because they answered all the questions…even if they had to use their notes or a peer to answer 50% of the questions? That’s not good. This strategy does a good job of literally and figuratively highlighting their knowledge. Read the link above for more information on this…it’s easy to apply and adapt to most formative assessment strategies.

6 comments

    1. At the end of the chapter, we study our note cards and drill and kill. Then we do a Quizizz, preferably not on the same day. Days later we will play a kahoot then take the test. In a few months, we will replay the kahoot before the final exam at Christmas time. Ideally, we’ll hit it again before the AP exam in April. Because of this principle, I’d rather repeat a lesson then teach a difficult one if there is a time constraint.

  1. I always enjoy reading your posts Blake, thanks for giving me more to think about and reminding of this strategy! I read something you wrote before and wanted to try it, so this is great timing!

  2. I’ve been trying very hard to weave retrieval practice into my classes (which are live and online but that’s another issue). I also use Peter Liljedahl’s vnps activities. Where do you see that fitting in to the retrieval practice cycle? It seems to fit in at the first attempt at retrieval, because it’s so easy to jump over to the board and get them away from their notes, however the vnps strategy allows two people in the group to help each other. On the other hand, it would fit in nicely after the self-assessment as well, because of the social aspect, BUT then they don’t have access to their notes.

  3. Also, as a math teacher, I’m wondering about how hard to make the questions – would it make sense to gradually crank up the difficulty every time you start a new retrieval practice cycle?

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