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Spaced Learning: A Revolution for Teaching and Training?

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Spaced learning is a new and innovative technique in learning which is just beginning to make its mark. The method involves a series of short, intense training sessions with increased learner participation, separated by short intervals in which learners do a completely different activity.

Keeping ahead of the curve, Atlas is continuously researching the latest techniques and technologies to enhance the learning experience. Spaced learning is a new and innovative technique in learning design which is just beginning to make its mark. It is based upon research by American neuroscientist R. Douglas Fields into how long-term memories are created[1], and was further developed by Paul Kelley and his team of teachers and scientists at Monkseaton High School who came up with a teaching method to apply the principles.

The method involves a series of three short, intense training sessions (usually 15 to 20 minutes each) with increased learner participation, separated by 10 minute intervals in which learners do a completely different, and often physical, activity.

[1] R.Douglas Fields (February 2005), Making Memories Stick, Scientific American, pp. 58–63

It is the break in activities which is key to the spaced learning approach; during these intervals the brain actively forms connections between the new concepts learnt and the learners existing knowledge. The repetition of the same content strengthens these connections and the information is committed to long term memory, despite being covered in such a short time.

At Monkseaton High School in the north of England, where Paul Kelley and his team developed the method, students saw their grades improve and were much more engaged in their classes. Teachers also found that the method, which condenses months’ worth of teaching into a single session, freed up valuable time which allowed the students to study additional topics of their own choosing, putting them in control of their learning and further increasing their engagement.

Spaced learning is still in its infancy, and many concerned about its effectiveness and how it will affect teaching, particularly in a school setting. However, for adult learners who often have little time for training, the appeal of a fast, condensed and highly effective training program is in demand. This swift but successful method seems ideally suited to some of the more technical subjects in safety critical industries, where lengthy and laborious learning doesn’t seem to cut it.

As the method was developed for use in a formal classroom setting, it has not yet been widely applied in digital learning and there are several challenges inherent to the application; how can you plan and enforce interval activities with no control over where and when the learner sits the course? Can you get the learner on board with a completely different way of learning? Can you incorporate interval activities into the content of the course, without it seeming jarring or a waste of time?

While these issues do need careful consideration, in many ways spaced learning seems suited to digital learning; both involve stripping down a large volume of content to the absolute essentials and delivering it in as efficient a way as possible. Popular techniques in digital learning such as using stories and scenarios present suitable activities for the “application” training session. And short digital games and videos can be used as interval activities within the course itself.

It’s too early to say whether spaced learning will radically change the way that we are taught, either in schools or digitally as adult learners, but it’s clear that the method has the potential for significant impact.

Here at Atlas, we believe that creating training that is both shorter and more memorable will be of real benefit to our clients. While most of the research and evidence on spaced learning refers to a classroom setting, we’re investigating ways that we can adapt these techniques into digital learning, such as using games as in-course break activities. Although this unconventional technique may not be to everyone’s taste, the benefits of training that takes less time, is more interesting for learners and results in a better trained workforce, mean that the power of spaced learning cannot be ignored.

Alison Emsley
Instructional Designer

Alison Emsley is an Instructional Designer with a keen interest in using storytelling and gamification to engage and excite learners. Coming from a Media Development background, she is focussed on pushing the boundaries of what’s technically possible to achieve the best learning solution.