How to Use Spacing and Retrieval Practice to Improve Learning

How Use Spacing Retrieval image

I’ve never been a good night-before crammer for exams. First, I get too stressed out thinking about how much I need to do in too little time. And when I’m stressed, NOTHING gets done. Second, I fall asleep between 8:30 and 9:00 p.m., even if I’m watching This is Us, Downton Abbey or in the old days, The West Wing. And, in case you didn’t know...falling asleep early really cramps up cramming.

How falling asleep by 9:00 p.m. turned me into a cognitive learning scientist.

To manage this in college I started creating a schedule for myself. I plugged in the date of the exam, counted the pages to be read, and analyzed the syllabus for topics to be learned and the days between right now and the exam and divided what needed to be mastered by the number of days I had. I figured out quickly that starting early meant less per day which helped manage my study stress. Scheduling less per day also helped me finish before the 8:30 brain flat lining. And once I knew I had a plan for covering everything, I could let everything go except what I’d scheduled for TODAY, increasing my chances of really learning something.

A number of years and an advanced degree later, my study invention had worked.

Fast forward several years to my life as a freelance trainer. Yep, you guessed it, when I book a training I count the days between contract signing and training delivery and divide that by the number of pages in my training outline. This tells me the number of pages per day for which I must create and rehearse stories, examples, and seamless transitions. Each day I rehearse my new content and add it on to what I'd rehearsed in the days before. By training day I'm so prepared that I rarely look at my outline.

So how does all of this make me a cognitive learning scientist?

It just so happens that there is an abundance of research on a set of cognitive strategies that can dramatically improve student learning; two of which I unknowingly built into my own learning plan described above. These two strategies are spacing and retrieval practice.

Spacing is spreading out exposure to and review of material over time; with sleep in between.

Spacing or spaced practice involves reviewing (as a student) or presenting material and assigning practice of that material (as a teacher) over time instead of in one large information download. The sleep in between is how the brain consolidates its new learning. So, it is always better to plan more sessions with sleep in between than to cram everything into one long (sleepless) marathon session.

The TO DO for teachers is to introduce new material in smaller chunks, spread out over time, and have students practice it days, weeks and months later.

As I look back on my strategy (which it turns out I didn’t invent after all), I can see why it works so well for me to concentrate on a small amount each day as I prepare for a training, adding it to what I mastered the day before. Spacing my practice out in smaller chunks and retrieving it to rehearse it in the days before delivery not only keeps older material fresh, my understanding of it becomes more nuanced as I practice it in light of the new material I’m adding to it.

Spacing and retrieval practice work together to create learning.

Spaced practice requires retrieval. Weinstein and Smith (2017) cite a study that shows that retrieval practice is better at creating learning than reviewing notes or readings, which only requires recognition. When you review, you simply say, “Yep, I recognize that I’ve read this before.” Retrieval, on the other hand, causes learning because it takes effort to wear a path in the brain to retrieve that information. The more you travel that path in retrieval practice, the more permanent your learning becomes.

Practical ways to use spaced and retrieval practice in your behavior-change course.

Structure learning events with spacing:

Schedule teaching over longer periods of time, preferably with retrieval practice and sleep in between. I did this by taking a 3-day face-to-face train-the-trainer program and separated each day by a month. Instead of learning how to deliver the entire curriculum in three days, new trainers learned how to deliver the first third of the curriculum and then went out and taught it. They returned for the second day of training a month later with a list of questions and problems they encountered. Part of the time on day two was spent addressing these issues and then the new material was presented for the next set of curriculum sessions. This took less time on days two and three of training because of the retrieval practice in between sessions and the fact that the structure of the sessions was now familiar and new topics built upon previous ones. Plus, trainees were getting just-in-time support, learning only what they needed to teach the next batch of lessons, avoiding cognitive overload and emotional overwhelm.

How can you restructure learning to create space, opportunities for retrieval practice, and avoidance of cognitive overload in your behavior-change course?

Teach learners to plan spaced retrieval practice: 

Teach your students how to plan spaced retrieval practice using a calendar and your syllabus. I have been teaching my preparation process to trainers in my presentation skills training for years. I explicitly tell trainers to start preparing 5 days ahead of time for a half-day training and 10 days ahead for a full-day training. I coach trainers to divide their outline equally among the days so that they are preparing stories, examples and transitions and rehearsing the delivery of these smaller chunks of  content each day; adding on to what they’ve previously prepared so they are confidently prepared by training day.

How can you help your learners use spacing and retrieval practice to enhance skill mastery in your behavior-change course?

Start class with strategic retrieval practice:

Start each class with a review of previous material that is related to your day’s topic. After an opening activity to engage learners with new material, I like to ask how previous material might relate to the day's topic. This changing of the context of the retrieval practice (by relating it to our new topic), helps students create additional pathways of access to previously presented information.

How can you vary the context for retrieval practice to help your learners create multiple pathways for accessing your behavior-change content?

Ask learners to create retrieval activities:

Start by teaching learners about the relative effectiveness of reviewing course notes or handouts versus engaging in retrieval practice. Then take time in class to co-develop some retrieval practice activities. This might include asking students to generate a list of questions they think they should be prepared to answer or a few role-play scenarios that would require them to retrieve and implement various skills from your course. You could also have students create a success checklist for each question or role-play with those skills or responses that would be included in an effective response. Students can use these for retrieval practice on their own.

What types of retrieval practice activities could you have your students create?

Use student retrieval practice activities in class:

If you ask students to record the questions and role-play scenarios generated above on index cards, you can toss them into a container to draw from to conduct impromptu retrieval practice in upcoming class sessions, appropriately spaced for maximum effectiveness. This way, both the creation of the activities and the practice using them will engage your students in spaced retrieval practice.

One way I use role-plays for retrieval practice is to ask learners to get in pairs or small teams and use a success checklist listing the skills to be mastered to plan a role-play around one of several student-generated scenarios; with each role-play team working on a different scenario. Then I invite teams to come to the front of the room to demonstrate their role-play. Just before the first team presents I collect the success checklists from all but one team, who will record the scoring for the first demonstrating team.

After a team presents their role-play I ask the rest of the students to name (retrieve) the skills they observed in the other team's role-play. While delivering the role-play presents one opportunity for retrieval practice, identifying the skills another team demonstrates in their role-play presents a second opportunity. By changing the context (from our role-play to someone else's role-play) students create additional pathways of access to the skills to be mastered, enriching their mental model for that skill set. The scoring team keeps track of this on the one copy of the success checklist. We repeat this process until every team has had a chance to present their role-play and to score for another team, with multiple chances for observing and retrieving skills they observed in others' role-plays.

While both of the above activities are cued retrieval (the success checklist acts as a cue in the first activity, and the role-play acts as a cue in the second activity) as opposed to free retrieval ( having no success checklist to look at) I think cued recall activities are an appropriate scaffolded step for learners with whom I work. They often come back to class with stories of using the skills in a real-life interaction without a success checklist to look at, demonstrating success with free retrieval.

How much time can you build in for spaced retrieval practice in your behavior-change course?

What strategies do you use for spaced and retrieval practice in your behavior- change classroom?

Please share your ideas in the comments below.


Broomfield, C. (2016). Retrieval practice through free recall vs. cued recall. Adventures. Education Blog  

Pomerance, L. Greenberg, J. & Walsh, K. (2016) Learning about learning: What every teacher needs to know.

Thalheimer, W. (2017). Five reasons learners experience the spacing effect. Will at Work Learning Blog. ttp://

Weinstein, Y. & Smith, M. (2017). 2 research-tested learning strategies. Brain-Based Learning Blog, Edutopia.