Buzzword Decoder: Spaced Learning

Written By

Pamela Hogle

November 08, 2016

Also referred to as “spaced repetition,” this approach to instruction alternates short, intensely focused periods of learning with breaks. The breaks give the brain time to process information, and repetition of material in multiple learning sessions aids in creating a permanent memory.

Dr. Paul Kelley, a British neuroscientist and educator, developed a formalized application of spaced learning that suggests three intensive instruction sessions separated by 10-minute breaks. An hour of instruction in this format can cover material that takes several weeks in some other teaching formats, according to Kelley.

Each of the three instruction sessions presents the same material, but with a different emphasis: The first input session is typically a lecture presentation of material with PowerPoint-type slides; the second adds some element of recall; the third asks learners to demonstrate understanding by applying the material to a problem or task. In the first session, information is presented very quickly; learners focus on it without taking notes or allowing any other distractions. Learners spend the 10-minute breaks between sessions doing any simple physical activity unconnected to the learning. These breaks allow the brain to work to embed the information in memory. While other implementations of spaced learning are common, the structure of “present, recall, understand” is important, according to Kelley; it is also essential that learners spend the breaks doing something very different.

Kelley based his instructional method on neuroscience research by R. Douglas Fields that was published in Scientific American in 2005 (see References). The research, on how memories are formed, found that the neural pathways that form the biological basis for memories are created when cells were stimulated at intervals but not when stimulated constantly, hence the need for breaks.

Spaced learning is ideally suited to teaching factual material or processes where you can check understanding by using projects or solving problems. It is intended for use in situations where learners need to acquire a large amount of information quickly. The length of the instructional sessions varies, but should be tailored to the learners’ ability to concentrate; Kelley’s method, tested and applied at Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside, England, uses sessions lasting 15 to 20 minutes (see References).

Kelley’s spaced learning approach echoes spaced repetition techniques used since the 1930s to improve recall of vocabulary and other factual information. These techniques, including flashcards and the Pimsleur Method of learning languages, are based on the idea that people learn more effectively when information is broken into small pieces and learners are exposed to each piece, then asked to recall the information multiple times at gradually increasing intervals.

Both principles—breaking information into nuggets and repeated exposure over time—lend themselves well to eLearning. But much traditional eLearning, based on instructor-led in-person training, tends toward modules that are 30 or 45 minutes to an hour long, and eLearning tends to be heavily biased toward the “present” leg of Kelley’s trilogy. Kelley’s emphasis on recalling and applying information can be heard as a call to integrate more interactive activities and problem-solving into eLearning. Adding opportunities for active recall and checking learners’ understanding is easy to do in eLearning by using quizzes, matching games, flashcards, simulations, and other interactive activities.

A mobile-friendly approach to spaced learning could use responsive design or mobile apps, turning the eLearning into available-anywhere job aids or just-in-time training. Kelley’s requirement for breaks after 15 to 20 minutes (or less) of focused instruction is a reminder to keep eLearning sessions and modules short, an idea that is reflected in a trend toward microlearning.


Bradley, Angela, and Alec Patton. “Spaced Learning: Making memories stick.” Learning Futures and Monkseaton High School.

Fields, R. Douglas. “Making Memories Stick.” Scientific American. 1 February 2005.

Hogle, Pamela. “Buzzword Decoder: Just-in-Time Training.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 13 September 2016.

Hogle, Pamela. “Buzzword Decoder: Microlearning.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 30 August 2016.

Hogle, Pamela. “Buzzword Decoder: Responsive Design.” Learning Solutions Magazine. 25 October 2016.

Kelley, Paul, and Terry Whatson. “Making long-term memories in minutes: a spaced learning pattern from memory research in education.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Vol. 7. 25 September 2013.

More Design

You May Also Like