Allen Hall is a vice principal for curriculum and assessment at Waterhead Academy part of the South Pennine Academies in North West England. Allen is a participant of the Future Leaders programme under Ambition School Leadership - https://www.ambitionschoolleadership.org.uk - and a specialist leader in education (SLE) with the South Pennine Academies. He is a keen Twitter user (@ahalledu) and blogger at www.allenhalledu.com. Allen enjoys debating and discussing education with others to learn new ideas and refine old ones so to improve student learning. His particular interests are in organisational health and evidence-based practice in schools.
Another school year is upon us, with GCSE season a recent memory: a period in the school calendar that, as ever, brought stress, anxiety and a lot of prayers. Year on year, the same patterns emerge in a relentless bid to ensure that the pupils are the best that they can be, leaving schools in ‘stuck record’ syndrome.
You can picture the scene: frantic teachers throw everything possible at pupils through endless interventions, worksheets and helpful strategies whilst the nonchalant pupils happily coast lackadaisically before reality sets in, leading to late night cramming sessions. But it’s all worth it, as we see Year 11 pupils enjoying their summer and teachers enjoying the extra time to catch up on the piles of work forgotten in the past month. The late nights, the arguments and the tears (mainly from the teachers) are forgotten, and we subconsciously prepare to do it all over again.
And yet, what is the real toll? Everyone is exhausted and, although, cramming may lead to a short-term gain, it leaves pupils less prepared for college and beyond. Pretty much, cram means can’t retain and master. Every year we think something has got to change to support the sanity of pupils and teachers, but the short-term pain becomes lost when pupils show a glimmer of success and progress, making it seem worthwhile.
So, the cycle continues, the GCSE season is back and all the reflection and “never again” resolutions quickly evaporate. It’s like having Dead or Alive’s cult hit You Spin Me Round (Like a Record) playing in the background. But we can change the tune by not waiting until next year to cram, but by starting right now, with revision utilising the spacing effect.
“The spacing effect is one of the oldest and best-documented phenomena in the history of learning and memory research.” (Bahrick & Hall, 2005)
Numerous studies provide evidence to suggest that spacing learning out has a greater impact in learning than massed study. More so, spaced repetition improves a person’s ability to retrieve information from memory.
Our current method of cramming during GCSE season may appear to have a short-term impact but learning from those sessions won’t stick. Instead, a steady, regular approach over time is necessary to improve learning and retention. Therefore, pupils who start preparing for next year’s GCSE now not only improve their results, but will be able to carry their learning with them to the next phase of their schooling or work life.
A classic study by Ebbinghaus suggests that new learning quickly erodes nearly 70% after one day and is nearly forgotten after one month. Unfortunately, knowing this probably does little to alleviate the frustration we have sometimes when pupils’ primary response in the next lesson is “I don’t remember!” But what it does demonstrate is that teaching without revisiting material will only lead to panicked, last-minute anxiety and cramming when the month of May approaches.
Here are three (of many) practical ways to embed the spacing effect in the classroom:
1. Use of low-stakes formative assessment strategies, such as quizzing, to regularly test key concepts spaced throughout the year.
2. Develop subject level revision mapping to ensure key concepts and topics are interleaved to support pupil home learning.
3. Find opportunities to revisit prior learning by making explicit links with new learning.
There are many ideas when it comes to when and how often to put the spacing effect into practice. However, Cepeda et al (2008) provide a helpful recommendation on the optimal intervals to maximise the potential of the spacing effect.
It may be hard to digest that, to learn, we must be on the verge of forgetting. However, it is time we changed our thinking. Helping pupils to stop cramming will always be difficult, but we can help by considering the spacing effect in our curriculum planning. Even more, we must improve pupils’ revision skills so that they know when and how to study.
Cramming may work in the short term, but for learning to last steady, regular, spaced learning needs to take place. The impact of the spacing effect is more than improving pupil attainment; it will also help pupils’ learning to stick.
Bahrick, H.P. & Hall, L.K. (2005). The importance of retrieval failures to long-term retention: A metacognitive explanation of the spacing effect. Journal of Memory and Language, 52, 566-577.
Cepeda, N.J., Vul, E., Rohrer, D., Wixted, J.T. & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning: A temporary ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science, 19, 1095-1102.
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