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How to use spaced repetition for learning

Spaced repetition is a learning technique that helps to shift knowledge from your short to long term memory. It’s critical for effective learning.

Blog Posts
How to use spaced repetition for learning
March 3, 2023
How to use spaced repetition for learning

Your brain is wired to forget. By tomorrow, you’re at risk of forgetting 80% of what you learned today! But spaced repetition can help you remember almost everything. Here’s everything you need to know about spaced repetition and how to implement it in your learning programmes.

What is spaced repetition?

Spaced repetition is a learning technique to strengthen your memory for information by reviewing the material multiple times across increasing intervals of time. Spaced repetition produces stronger memories than repetitions massed closer together.  

Alternative names include spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsal, graduated intervals, repetition spacing, repetition scheduling, spaced retrieval and expanded retrieval [1][1]

Why is spaced repetition important for learning?

The aim of workplace learning is to help people do something. This could be to improve their performance, change their behaviour or adopt a new skill.  

Most learning and training programmes are well intentioned but tend to get stuck on knowledge sharing. But to build knowledge and skills that stick, learners need more.

Spaced repetition helps to shift knowledge from short term, to long term memory. Add spaced practice to that and you end up with knowledge and skills that stick. And that is what we need to aim for!  

Spaced repetition is one of the best researched, most important ingredients for effective learning transfer. Yet it’s often missing from learning and training programmes.  

The neuroscience of spaced repetition

Each time you remember something, memories are effectively created afresh in your brain. Every ‘rehearsal’ of a memory embeds it deeper until it sticks for the long term. That’s because you’re building stronger neural connections every time you recall something.  

Until it’s stuck in your long-term memory, learning can easily be disrupted by other information or experiences.  

Back in 1885 Hermann Ebbinghaus found that spacing learning over a longer period was more effective than cramming information into a short burst. We’ve known about this for a long time!  

Building spaced repetition into learning will help you move knowledge from short to long-term memory – and beat what Ebbinghaus called ‘the forgetting curve’.  

For spaced repetition to be most effective, it’s best to actively recall information rather than just repeat your exposure to it.

The graph below shows how much more information is retained if you recall it in spaced intervals.  

Spaced repetition graph

How does spaced repetition work?

As you move through your learning journey, you’re asked questions about the key information you’re learning. These are known as spaced repetition questions (SRQs).  

In our learning transfer platform, we use five stages of SRQs. You start at stage one - if you answer correctly, you’ll move to stage two and so on - until you reach stage five.

If you answer incorrectly at any point, you’ll be shown the answer to refresh your memory, and move back a stage.

This all happens over time to build neural pathways in your brain, so you can be confident that the knowledge sticks in your long-term memory.

The best spaced repetition schedule

Effective spaced repetition starts 24 hours after you encounter the initial information (after your brain begins to consolidate your memories whilst you sleep).  

An example of a spaced repetition schedule:

Our Train Smarter programme has 6 modules, each a week apart. We use this spacing schedule where we aim for 5 correct spaced repetitions:

24 hours, 2 days, 4 days, 8 days, 16 days.  

Spaced repetition schedule

Spaced repetition schedule

Overall, people answer questions in short bursts for about 8-10 weeks making it hard to forget what they learned.

How to add spaced repetition into workplace learning programmes

If you want your training and learning programmes to result in people changing behaviour and building new skills – spaced repetition is an essential ingredient. Serving up content isn’t enough. You need to support employees to embed that knowledge – and actively use it through spaced repetition and spaced practice.  

A basic approach

A step in the right direction, with a basic, low-cost approach to spaced repetition could be to set up a series of emails or Slack messages to send out to participants at spaced intervals.  

The benefits of this type of approach is that it’s quick and cheap with the tools you have. However, the drawback is that it quickly becomes very complex to manage personalised spaced repetition schedules especially if people need to move back a step.  

The larger the scale of training, the more complex and unmanageable this becomes.  

A smarter, scalable approach to spaced repetition

If you’re working at scale and want to embed spaced repetition into learning programmes, then technology is your friend.  

Here’s what to look for in software for spaced repetition:

  • Automated spaced repetition question creation based on learning objectives and content to save you time
  • A tool that’s designed with workplace learning in mind
  • Engaging knowledge nuggets so people know why and how spaced repetition works
  • Configurable options to personalise the spaced repetition journey
  • PC and app-based nudges to answer the questions at just the right time
  • Options to ‘test out’ if people are confident, they already know the material
  • Additional support for spaced practice, so that you can go beyond knowledge to build skills and actually change behaviour

Check out the Stellar Labs platform, which handles spaced repetition for you.

Stellar Labs Learning Transfer platform

Final thoughts

Just because you’ve read this blog about spaced repetition, you haven’t really learnt it. To embed this knowledge into your long-term memory, try some spaced repetition of your own. This could be as simple as setting some reminders in your phone to recall some of the key information we shared here.  

Even better, put it into practice in your learning programmes to build your skills as learning professional!

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