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York psychologist studies the 'spacing effect' in teaching

York psychologist studies the 'spacing effect' in teaching

In the late 1800s, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus set out to memorize hundreds of nonsense syllables and discovered it was more efficient to space out his study sessions than to try to learn long lists in one sitting [wrote The Globe and Mail Feb. 7]:

Hundreds of studies carried out since have established the power of what is now known as the “spacing effect” – how people can better remember faces, words and historical facts if they spread out their study time rather than attempting one long cram session.

But most of the experiments have involved adults, said York University psychologist Nicholas Cepeda [Faculty of Health], who has begun to study the spacing effect in Ontario classrooms. He wants to come up with simple recommendations that will help teachers capitalize on the effect to improve how much students learn and retain.

Cepeda's studies include: What kind of spacing is most effective? Should lessons and subsequent review sessions be a week apart? Or is a gap of several months better? Are cumulative tests an effective teaching tool because they cover material taught earlier in the year as well as the most recent lessons?

Cepeda is probing deeper questions as well. What is it about the brain that makes the spacing effect so powerful? What can it tell us about how memory works? Cepeda was recently awarded a $100,777 grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to buy equipment that will allow him to measure the electrical activity in the brains of children when they learn something for the first time, compared to when they study it again several months later.

He expects that re-learning material a second or third time is the result of different, more intense brain activity. “If you have forgotten the material, the brain may think it has to pay more attention.”

Cepeda also wants to assess the value of cumulative tests, which include questions on material students learned earlier in the year and could be a valuable teaching tool.

He said it is frustrating how little research is done to translate the discoveries psychologists and neuroscientists make about memory and learning into effective teaching strategies. In the United States, the Institute of Education Sciences funds this kind of research, but there is no equivalent agency in Canada, said Cepeda, who has applied to the US institute to do more studies in Toronto classrooms.

“As psychologists, we are sometimes scared to tell teachers what to do because we may end up telling them to do something that works in the lab that doesn’t work in the real world. We really do need to be testing these things in the classroom.”

Republished courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin