Effective Uses of EdTech: Practicing Spaced Repetition for Improved Memory

The best uses of education technology are not about the technology – they’re about teaching and learning. Technology can be a powerful tool, but it’s all about how it used.

There have been a lot of dead ends and broken promises on the edtech highway, but there have also been some clear wins – meaningful uses of digital technologies that can help students engage, explore, learn, practice, and retain knowledge. After a decade of considering and writing about emerging education technologies, I am more compelled than ever to understand and share some of the ways that thoughtful, informed uses of technology can empower teachers and position students to own their learning.

Before digging in, let me state clearly that simply placing devices in students’ hands and expecting that to make a difference is foolish (there are so many analogies that come to mind here – give them an iron skillet, and bam! they are chefs, give them a wrench and they’re plumbers, give them 3D printers and they’re engineers, etc.). It just doesn’t work that way.

Last week we looked at the power of education technology to give students a more prevalent voice. In today’s post, we’re going to look at spaced repetition – a memorization techniques that learning science has proven works, and consider technology to support this technique.

Spaced Repetition

Wikipedia’s spaced repetition page explains:

Spaced repetition is an evidence-based learning technique that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect. Alternative names include spaced rehearsalexpanding rehearsalgraduated intervalsrepetition spacingrepetition schedulingspaced retrieval and expanded retrieval. The use of spaced repetition has been shown to increase the rate of learning.

The page goes on to cite research and studies stretching back nearly 100 years. The basic premise of spaced retrieval is that by studying material that you want to learn over spaced intervals is highly effective and promotes longer term memory storage (as opposed to “cramming” it in all in one night and then forgetting it all).

To clarify further, in my July 2018 article, “8+ Science-Backed Learning Techniques Effective EdTech Products Should Strive to Incorporate“, I noted:

“Spaced repetition utilises the spacing effect, which comes from an observation made by Ebbinghaus over a hundred years ago.” (Nickson, 2017)

As for the spacing effect, www.gwern.net provides an excellent description of how this works:

“The spacing effect essentially says that if you have a question (“What is the fifth letter in this random sequence you learned?”), and you can only study it, say, 5 times, then your memory of the answer (‘e’) will be strongest if you spread your 5 tries out over a long period of time – days, weeks, and months. One of the worst things you can do is blow your 5 tries within a day or two. You can think of the ‘forgetting curve’ as being like a chart of radioactive half-lives: each review bumps your memory up in strength 50% of the chart, say, but review doesn’t do very much in the early days because the memory simply hasn’t decayed very much!” (Branwen, 2018)

Tech to support spaced repetition practice

There are numerous ways to leverage technology to support spaced repetition. Here are a few:

  • Flash Card apps: Popular apps like Quizlet and Memrise are great for spaced recall.
  • Apps designed around spaced repetition: There are a couple apps I have found specific to spaced repetition, like reminDO (https://remindo.co/), but I can’t find much in the way of reviews to speak to how they work as apps. ATTENTION EDTECH APP Designers – this is an area ripe for development!
  • DIY/Build your own: Using a combination of document tools and calendaring tools, one can readily create a schedule and store links to resources to use to study. Even if the resources are good old fashioned paper flash cards, using a schedule/calendar management tool can help manage the “spaced” part of the review and recall exercise.

Of course, if you know of some other apps like these, please share them in the comments section below.

Build your own spaced repetition “tech” by combining digital tools.

Let’s take a closer look at the DIY approach, and consider a practical example. When I spoke with Quizlet CEO Matt Glotzbach back in 2016, Quizlet was used by 1 in 3 high school students, so let’s just assume a student has study sets in Quizlet that they can use to practice learning about a subject (and if they don’t, it’s a great place to go find some!). How can we incorporate those study sets into a spaced retrieval exercise and bring some automation to the task with calendaring?

You’ll need a calendaring app (like Google) and you’ll have to decide on a schedule for practice. In this example, I am going to focus on the Solar System. Here is a free set of 39 flashcards for Solar System terminology. Assuming we have a test in two weeks on this, we might define a schedule something like this:

  • Practice the deck once this morning and once tonight (let’s say today is Monday).
  • Practice the deck tomorrow around lunch time
  • Practice the deck Wednesday Evening
  • Practice the Saturday morning
  • Practice the Tuesday morning

Now, use your calendaring app to set appointments for each of these practice sessions (and include a link to the flashcards, for convenience).

Again, this is just an example to illustrate the idea. Some may need more practice, some less, just be sure to spread it out. (And I welcome additional input, suggestions, or feedback from those who are more experienced with this technique.)

Spaced Retrieval vs. Retrieval Practice

On her CultofPedagogy site, Jennifer Gonzolez writes that, “Retrieval practice is the act of trying to recall information without having it in front of you” (Jennifer’s site is a great resource – I highly recommend checking her work out). Honestly, I am not sure if there is much of a difference between Retrieval Practice and Spaced Retrieval other than the emphasis on spaced time intervals in the latter. I would like to understand this better so if anyone who knows more about this can clarify (via the comments section), it would be greatly appreciated! You can also reach out through the contact page.

Teachers – We Want YOUR Input. What has YOUR Experience Been with these Techniques and Apps?

I would love to build on these posts and flesh these ideas out further by talking with teachers who have experience with them, and sharing takeaways from those conversations with readers. Please drop a comment and let’s chat (or connect with me through my contact page)!

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