Massed versus spaced learning – which is more effective?

Hermann Ebbinghaus

What do these phrases mean, what impact do they have on long term learning and how might you implement them for improved learning of skills or knowledge?

One of the best know research findings in all of psychology is the Ebbinghaus Effect – the tendency for information to be very quickly forgotten unless you do something definite to retain it.  It shows that about 24 hours after you’ve learned something you’ll have forgotten between 70 and 80% of what you learned.  The Ebbinghaus Effect is usually measured by asking people to learn meaningless strings of words or letters and then testing their recall. This  isn’t like the real world where you learn complex, connecting, interesting, concrete concepts through stories, activity, action, repetition, engagement, review, reflection, interaction, emotion, experimentation etc. etc.  Or perhaps your world is not always quite like that either!

Back to spacing.  Spaced repetition has been shown to help combat the Ebbinghaus Effect, probably by allowing the brain to recover in the intervals between repeating the learning.   R. Douglas Fields demonstrated that neurons need time to recover after firing (about 8 minutes recovery time in his experiments).  It’s a bit like needing to put the ‘pop’ back into your ‘pop’ gun before it will work again.

Massed learning is when you try to cram all your learning into one ‘study’ period and then move onto another topic.  It may seem more efficient initially because you can squeeze everything in one session but the advantage is swiftly lost because most of what is learned is forgotten quickly so you need to retrain or relearn.  If you had to learn ABC, then using massed learning you would learn all of A, then all of B, then all of C.

Spaced learning creates time intervals between learning sessions for your brain to refresh itself and  so consolidate the learning.  This may initially appear to take longer but long term retention is significantly enhanced so it’s a net saving of time.    For longer term retention it seems to be most effective if you start to stretch out the intervals between the sessions.

Ideas to use:

So while spaced repetition means you don’t cram everything at once, you can intersperse one topic with another – presuming the same neurons aren’t firing.  So if you have to learn ABC, you can do a little a, then b, then c, then more a, b, c, a, b, c.  This is one way to overcome the challenge of having limited time for learning in the classroom or work context.

Reviewing for 10 minutes at the end of a session rather than working right up to the end gives opportunities for learners to refresh their learning.  But it’s the learner that needs to actively recall rather than the trainer/ teacher / system repeat the information.

We encourage our learners to intersperse ideas and actively recall within the session, at the end of a day, 24 hours later, 1 week later, 1 month later, 3 months later and at 6 months.

Bite sized learning sessions spaced over a few days or weeks that include review time, enhance people’s abilities to recall facts, as well as become more skilled in practical and behavioural skills.

So don’t let Hermann Ebbinghaus’ research from all those years ago be in vain – give spaced learning a go.

Ebbinghaus, Hermann (1885). Translation of Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology

Douglas Fields Study

Will Thalheimer on the spacing effect


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