Spaced Repetition: A Microlearning Technique from the 1880s That Enhances Recall


Since its inception almost 150 years ago, spaced repetition has been transforming education practices. It’s still got plenty to offer educators today.

Below, more on:

  • The basics of microlearning.
  • Why spaced repetition is crucial to the success of this form of education.
  • How micro-lessons and review sessions can be designed for maximum effect.

Let’s go.

What is Spaced Repetition

Although microlearning is a cutting-edge means of teaching content and skills, the effectiveness of spaced repetition has been known since the 1880s, when Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted his pioneering experiments.

Although researchers have learned more about the science of memory since then, and although teachers only started applying spaced repetition to learning in the 1960s (Pimsleur language courses are a notable example), Ebbinghaus’s work still stands as the fundamental work on the subject.

How About Microlearning

Microlearning is a buzzword in modern e-learning circles, promising to deliver engaging, relevant content that accommodates learners’ busy schedules, short attention spans, and constant distractions from social networks. Many organizations are turning to microlearning to train their employees.

However, it has been known for several decades that practicing small chunks of content on a regular, ongoing basis is a far more effective means of learning things such as languages or musical instruments than massed learning (cramming).

Learning and design experts argue over the length of microlearning sessions. Still, everyone agrees that they should contain only what learners need to know about a subject, have a specific learning objective, and be delivered “just in time,” i.e.,  at the point of need.

Spaced repetition is critical to effectively retaining content learned in microlearning sessions.


The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve

Hermann Ebbinghaus discovered that memories fade with time, with the sharpest decline in recall happening immediately after learning and slowing down until, after a month, around 20% of content was recalled.

Spaced repetition is a way of interfering with this process of forgetting. If learners revise immediately after learning a piece of content, they boost their memory and recall information they have begun forgetting. 

Repeating this process after a day, focusing on the content they have the hardest time remembering, resetting the forgetting curve so that the learner is back to knowing (approximately) all of the information. The process of forgetting begins again, but the drop-off in the recall is shallower.

As learners repeat this cycle of reviewing information at intervals (either increasingly spaced out or regularly), but critically, when they have forgotten significant amounts but haven’t totally forgotten, their brains work harder, helping to solidify the content in their long-term memory.

The brain science behind this is that the brain builds new connections (synapses) between neurons when someone learns anything new. These neural pathways are strengthened by repetition, which strengthens memory.

If learners study new information too soon after old, it tends to drive the old knowledge out. So “cramming” a lot of information into a single session results in poorer retention.

Factors That Affect Learners’ Ability to Remember Information

Several factors impact students’ ability to learn and recall information.

Making content meaningful and relevant to learners results in retaining it better than knowledge they are not interested in. Likewise, if people understand a concept, they remember it far better than if they do not.

The organization of information according to a logical structure enhances retention. Teachers can take advantage of this by presenting information clearly to reduce learners’ cognitive load.

Priming and scaffolding are aids for absorbing information. Priming refers to having an overview of a subject before learning specific facts – because the context is more apparent, remembering data points is easier. Scaffolding, or learning basic skills before advanced ones, helps with comprehension.

Intense emotions tend to embed memories more deeply, which is why music and video can greatly aid learning.

Physical health affects memory – stress and sleep deprivation hinder learners’ ability to remember.

Recall Sessions That Maximize Effectiveness

Teachers can boost learners’ recall of content in several ways.

Recall activities that incorporate the application of information rather than simple recall are more effective.

Interleaving content from various topics that learners have studied before challenges recall abilities and help with synthesizing knowledge into the bigger picture.

Nowadays, many microlearning platforms use proprietary algorithms to target content learners find more challenging to learn and determine the optimal review intervals for each piece of content.

Final Thoughts

Spaced repetition is a highly effective way of boosting content recall and is critical to any microlearning program. As educators increasingly implement microlearning, its vast potential remains to be seen – watch with interest.

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