Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Spaced-learning: A Unique Method of Learning Based on Neuroscience

Students fly through a PowerPoint on DNA replication, listen to Beethoven, recall the PowerPoint information, engage in physical exercise, and finally diagram the process of DNA replication. What is this seemingly broken and fast-paced learning style? It’s called Spaced-learning, and it is based on the discoveries by Douglas Fields in the Scientific American article "How to Make Memories Stick." 
(above) The "temporal code" of the brain can increase retention.
The Science
Spaced-learning is based on neuroscience and the retention of short-term vs. long-term memories, which are maintained differently by neurons in the brain. Short-term connections between neurons will fade quickly when not used, while long-term connections are often permanent. Intriguingly, research found that constant stimulation did not form long-term memories;  a specific pattern or "temporal code" of stimulation and rest was needed to  produce strong connections in the brain (Kelley, 2009). This "temporal code" involves three fast-paced inputs of content interspersed by two ten-minute breaks. Angela Bradley, author of "Spaced-Learning: Making Memories Stick," says that these break activities must avoid stimulating the pathways that were just formed during the input sessions; these breaks can include origami, musical chairs or aerobics (n.d.). 

The Pattern
To begin a Spaced-learning lesson, teachers give a  PowerPoint or prezi presentation on material that has been condensed into only the most necessary information. This presentation is then followed by a ten minute "brain break" activity that is unrelated to the content; the students are allowed to rest during this period and can engage in games, brain teasers, or physical exercise as planned by the teacher. After the break, students are again shown the PowerPoint or prezi from before, but now there are spaces that the students themselves must fill in; this second input is a student-centered presentation as opposed to the teacher-centered presentation that was given initially. Then, the students take another ten minute "brain break" and engage in a different activity, like listening to music, drawing a picture, or dancing. The last input presentation involves higher-order application of the content by the students; this means that students classify, predict, summarize, and diagram the information they have just learned.  
(above) Higher-Order Thinking skills are related to the areas at the top of  the Bloom's Taxonomy pyramid. 

While PowerPoints can often be boring and uninteresting to students, they are not the only way one can conduct a spaced-learning lesson. The article "Spaced Learning-Making memories Stick," states that experimentation is encouraged by teachers and parents. Any input method can be used that works for a certain classroom or student, but these inputs must follow the  pattern below (Greenfield, Bradley, and Dickson, n.d.).

1. Teachers present the information to students: The students do not take notes during this time. (Teacher-Centered)

10-minute Brain Break: An activity that is unrelated to the content. 

2. Students recall the information that was presented previously (Student-Centered)

10-minute Brain Break: Activity that is unrelated to the content

3. Students understand and apply the information that was presented (Critical Thinking)

*See the sample PowerPoint and activities at the end of this post for an example lesson.

The Evidence
As a parent or teacher, it may be difficult to see how spaced-learning could benefit your child/student. Why not stick to traditional "massed-learning" lessons instead of distracting students with unrelated activities? The research and improvements seen in classrooms  that have implemented spaced-learning show that this method of learning can work for some students. 
In Monkseaton High school of  Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, England, spaced learning has already been implemented and with surprising results. For instance, Scott Purcell, a student at Monkseaton who normally averaged D grades in science and English found that spaced learning was much more interesting than the traditional "massed-learning" method. His scores in his science classes increased to Cs, while his English score improved to a B (Woods, 2009). In addition, Dylan Mcgreevy from Monkseaton felt that these spaced lessons helped him retain more information and remain focused. "The lesson was able to hold my attention the entire time, which was rather interesting as I can sometimes be distracted and lose concentration near the end of lessons," he stated in "Spaced-Learning: Making Memories Stick" (Greenfield, Bradley, and Dickson, n.d.).

Another study conducted by John Krieger in his biology class showed that students scored approximately 8% higher on material taught via spaced-learning vs. material taught through traditional methods (2012). 

So it seems that the benefits from spaced-learning include increased retention and  increased attention during lessons; though, this method of learning may also provide one more benefit, increased opportunity for exercise and movement during the school day. Students who become restless during lessons will find the ten minute break a welcome relief, making it easier for these students to focus during class. In addition, when physical activity is included, students get the added benefit of exercise. According to "Let's Move" (n.d.), a program supported by Michelle Obama, childhood obesity has tripled in the past three decades in the US. This increase is due to poor diet and lack of exercise in today’s students; therefore, with the "brain breaks" provided by spaced-learning, students will get an opportunity to slightly increase their physical activity during the school day. 

These improvements in individual student scores, entire classroom percentage points, student attention, and student activity have shown that there is significant merit to the idea of spaced-learning, but one should be warned that it is not a "fix-all" for education. This technique should only be used for a few lessons out of the semester because it compacts information into a short-period of time, says Angela Bradley and Louise Dickson in "Spaced-Learning: Making Memories Stick." Therefore, teachers, parents, and scientists should continue to search for ways to strengthen memories and foster retention. Paul Kelley, the head of Monkseaton had the following to say regarding new methods of learning: "I believe that education will be improved not by political decisions or conventional wisdom, but by scientific research of this sort. The brain can process much more, much faster than we give it credit for" (Greenfield, Bradley, and Dickson, n.d.). With continued research, learning and teaching can be improved and perfected over time. 

To see if spaced-learning is right for you as a teacher, student, or parent, check the sample Lesson Activities and Resources listed below.

Sample PowerPoint and Brain Break Activities

Biology - Plants (9th Grade): By Andrea Kirk
Presentation 1
-The brain break activity is at the end of the slideshow.

Presentation 2
-The brain break activity is at the end of the slideshow.

Final Activity
The students could be given several plant photos and then be asked to classify these plants based on the terms they just learned in the presentations. The students should then create their own definitions for nonvascular, cuticle, xylem, phloem, roots, gymnosperm, angiosperm, and seedless vascular plant. These definitions can be shared or turned in as an exit slip.

Additional Resources:


Greenfield, S., Bradley, A., & Dickson, L. (n.d.). Spaced learning making memories stick. susangreenfield.com. Retrieved April 27, 2013, from http://www.susangreenfield.com/assets/Uploads/Spaced-Learning-Guide.pdf

Kelley, P. (2009, January 30). One hour: time it took year 9 to crack GCSE science - News - TES. The TES - education jobs, Teaching resources, Magazine & forums. Retrieved April 28, 2013,  from http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6007908

Krieger, J. (2012, September 21). Spaced learning. Prezi. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from  http://prezi.com/4oo0cwnjyzdc/spaced-learning/

Let's Move!. (n.d.). Let's move!. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from http://www.letsmove.gov

Woods, J. (2009, April 17). Revealed: new teaching methods that are producing dramatic results - Telegraph. Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/5166111/Revealed-new-teaching-methods-that-are-producing-dramatic-results.html