Spaced Learning: Optimize Your Learning Retention

There are a lot of demands on the attention of the modern learner. This makes it difficult for learners to focus on the content of e-learning courses. They are very unlikely to recall information after encountering it only once during the course. It may be that learners still pass the course, but will they remember the information a few months or even years down the line? Probably not.

This is because of the “forgetting curve”, which hypothesises the decline of memory retention over time. This curve shows how information is lost over time when there is no attempt to retain it. Learners who cram for an exam or rush through an e-learning course are prone to fall victim to the forgetting curve. According to this hypothesis, most of the forgetting occurs within the first hour of learning. After a few days, learners typically forget around 75% of what they have learned.

Learners need time, repetition, reinforcement, and a variety of delivery modes to truly grasp, apply and recall what they learn. And this can all be achieved with the help of spaced learning.

Spaced learning is an approach to learning that alternates short, intensely focused periods of learning with breaks, repeated over increasingly longer periods of time. Spaced learning was originally developed for classroom use, but it has been adapted to e-learning. Researcher Paul Kelley was first to outline the spaced learning technique in 2008.

Spaced learning assumes that after a learner’s first encounter with new information, that information is stored in the brain under “temporary” and is soon forgotten if it isn’t reinforced. Therefore, it is only after learners return to that information and fully understand how to apply it that it is transferred into long-term memory. If learners fail to revisit, apply, and reinforce the knowledge they have learned, then after a while it is cleared from memory to make room for new information.

This approach takes place gradually over time and is characterised by:

  • Short bursts of learning, each taking place through a variety of visual, auditory, and interactive deliveries.
  • Planned mental breaks in between each burst of learning to allow time to absorb information.
  • Application and engagement with content to reinforce understanding and improve retention.
  • Repetition of information using differing formats to broaden and deepen understanding and improve recall.


There are several benefits to spaced learning:

It lowers the cognitive load: With all the distractions modern learners face, there can be reduced cognitive capacity when it comes to actual learning. This means that their chances of learning, understanding, absorbing, and recalling new knowledge are drastically reduced. But with spaced learning, the periods of learning are separated by breaks that allow learners time to think about something else between sessions. This way there is less pressure on the brain at any given time. Learners experience less mental exhaustion and are more likely to fully absorb the information presented.

Improves retention and recall: By presenting bite-sized piece of content in different ways (such as video, text, interactive media, etc) repeatedly over time, learners are more likely to assimilate and understand new information – and the better they understand the content, the more likely they are to remember it in the future. This improves learners’ ability to apply the information they have learned where it matters most: in the real world.

Real-world applications: Engaging learners in realistic application and practice of new knowledge is crucial to spaced learning. Through practicing applied knowledge – such as with roleplays in a workshop or simulations in e-learning – the content is linked to situations in the real world. When learners practice what they’re being taught, knowledge becomes more firmly established in their memory.

With clear benefits to space learning, how do you go about incorporating it into your e-learning courses?

Get the structure right: The general structure for spaced learning is to present a learning activity that lasts up to five minutes, followed by a 10-minute break. Then repeat it twice. While the structure of learn, rest, learn, rest, learn is widely applicable the timing should be customised to the needs of the learner. Content on more challenging topics may need to be longer than five minutes, and therefore require longer breaks.

Use creative repetition: Repetition alone is inadequate. Watching the same video several times is likely to become boring and therefore the learning goals will be missed. Information should be repeated in new, interesting ways each time. Use videos, infographics, simulations, notes, quizzes, and other features to bring content to life and firmly embed it in the minds of learners. Using a variety of methods, with regular breaks, helps to keep learners involved and prevents boredom.

Combine with micro-learning: Micro-learning focuses on delivering information in shorter, more manageable pieces rather than trying to load everything onto learners at once. This fits perfectly with spaced learning as shorter chunks of information with intervals in between can be delivered.

Track results with quizzes: Keeping track of how learners are assimilating information is essential. With spaced learning it is wise to use frequent quizzes rather than a single exam at the conclusion of a course. Quizzes not only track progress but enhance learning as they drive learners to draw on information as they take the quiz. Knowing that there will be a quiz also motivates learners to pay attention to what they’re learning.

Spaced learning isn’t just a gimmick, it’s a proven way to help learners absorb information more efficiently and help them retain what they’ve learned. This methodology is appropriate for all types of training in any industry. It’s not difficult to adopt spaced learning for your purposes, so it’s worth giving it a bash!


Written by Rob Ewart


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