How to Build Spaced Learning into Your Online Courses

Spaced learning isn’t about the education of astronauts or space cadets. Spaced learning is an approach to teaching that helps students retain the information taught in your eLearning programs.

While enrolled in your online learning programs, adult learners are also working, parenting, taking care of household chores, or trying to find time for social lives and other activities. What happens? They try to do all their coursework at once and cram for exams whenever they can find the time.

Months later, they’re not really sure what they learned. They know it was good, and they received credits for their time, but they didn’t truly receive an education. What went wrong? The learning didn’t stick.

How spaced learning works

Thanks to neuroscientists, our knowledge about how the brain works and, particularly, how the brain learns, has increased over the past decade. But the spaced learning concept has its roots in the Forgetting Curve introduced by Hermann Ebbinghaus way back in 1885. According to the Forgetting Curve theory, information is forgotten over a period of time if it’s not reinforced. If you cram for an exam over a weekend, you may get a good grade but weeks later you won’t remember much of what you “learned.”

Paul Kelley brought the spaced learning concept to a wider audience in 2008. Spaced learning is the repetition of short learning sessions with breaks between the sessions. In the original research, three sessions were interspersed with two ten-minute breaks. A learner’s brain needs time to internalize information. Repetition and retrieval solidifies the information in the brain’s long-term memory.

The key to spaced learning is exposing students to new information over time in short sessions, reinforcing the information, and giving students opportunities to apply what they’re learning. But, you must schedule breaks in between these short learning sessions—no cramming allowed.

spaced learning

How to adapt spaced learning for your eLearning programs

When members or customers invest in an online learning program, they expect a good return on that investment—lasting knowledge that helps them do their job, advance in their career, or build their business. If the learning sticks and makes an impact on their lives, they’ll be loyal customers (students). But if it doesn’t, they may take their professional development budget elsewhere.

Train teachers on spaced learning.

Don’t assume your instructors understand how the brain learns. Professional educators should, but some of your instructors may come from other backgrounds. They’re experts in the subject matter, but not necessarily experts in adult learning. Introduce them to the concept of spaced learning and provide suggestions on how they can build it into their course design.

No cramming allowed.

If you offer prep courses for designation or licensing exams, don’t offer cram courses. Instead, spread out exam preparation over several weeks following the practices suggested here.

Introduce students to spaced learning.

Provide study tips at the beginning of the course that include guidance about spaced learning. Suggest students build short breaks into their study time and encourage them to repeat units so the learning sticks.

Build spaced learning into course design.

Creating a program based on spaced learning is easier for real-time courses since you can control the flow of information, but you can build spaced learning into asynchronous course design too. Make sure students take breaks between learning sessions by building in alternative learning activities, perhaps a video or audio that relates to the lesson material.

Repeat information in different contexts.

Courses designed for spaced learning are also mobile-friendly—as long as your LMS is responsive. Split up lessons into bite-sized chunks of learning that go over the same material but are delivered in different formats, for example, videos, audios, scenarios, case studies, simulations, and short readings. When students have ten minutes they can access a lesson on their phone, tablet, or computer.

spaced learning - repeat, reinforce and apply ideas

Build in continuous reinforcement of new skills and ideas.

Give students several opportunities to apply their new knowledge by putting it into practice—the principle of active recall. Give them individual, partner, or group exercises to complete based on real-life scenarios. For each lesson, ask them to answer a specific number of seeded questions in the course’s online community.

Link new concepts or skills to knowledge they’ve already acquired in previous lessons. After every section of material, schedule a review session. Help them make the connection between the new material and the skills or knowledge they already use at work.

Encourage social, active learning.

Take advantage of the online community in your LMS. Make community participation a mandatory component of the course. To make it more personal, assign students to small study groups and provide discussion topics and questions. Or, pair them up as accountability partners and send each partner a list of questions to ask the other throughout the week.

Continually test their knowledge.

Quizzes give students the opportunity to recall and apply what they’ve learned. Include frequent quizzes in your course design so students can repeatedly put their new knowledge to work. To continually reinforce what they’ve learned, include questions based on the current lesson as well as past lessons in each quiz. Mix up the quiz format so they have to think about the same information in different ways with true/false, fill in the blank, open-ended, and scenario-based questions.

Add spaced learning to conferences.

The spaced learning approach can also be applied to your conference and other in-person events. First, test out the concept with a few speakers and sessions. Give session or workshop attendees the opportunity to go deeper into a session topic. Send them an automated and spaced-out series of emails containing additional reading, videos, and audios related to the session’s content.

When you build spaced learning into the design of your eLearning programs, information sticks. Students don’t experience cognitive overload, and learning becomes less stressful and more enjoyable.

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