I am a procrastinator. In college I used to wait until the day before a big exam and stay up all night, alternating studying with trips to the Munchie Mart for unhealthy snacks and diet cokes. In the morning, I would pour some coffee and roll into the exam with my little blue exam book and Doritos crumbs spilling out of my pajamas.
And really, this cramming worked pretty well for me, at least for tests that required a lot of memorization. But now, if I had to tell you much about my anthropological learning from freshman year, I would be at a loss. I didn't learn these things for life because I was doing it wrong. I was using a MASSED learning technique, or trying to learn things in a short amount of time.
And while massed learning is a very common strategy, it's not the best way to learn things you want to remember for the long term. The research from educational psychology is overwhelmingly clear on the timing of learning sessions; the best way to learn things you want to remember is SPACING or distributed learning.
Spacing is studying the same thing over more than one session, with time between sessions. This learning technique has been studied in adults and children with all different kinds of learning, and the research conclusion is clear.
In thinking about schools, there are many examples of spacing: early childhood classrooms that study calendar every day, math classrooms where students complete a daily problem and homework that is a spiraling review of previous learning.
Understanding spaced learning can be very helpful for parents. If your child needs to build her sight word vocabulary, you are better off practicing for 5 minutes 4 times a week, than sitting down for one 20-minute session. If your son is being tested on state history in two weeks, help him set up a schedule of shorter study sessions. Want your daughter to practice her oboe for 60 minutes a week? Aim for four 15-minute sessions.
The research studies on spacing were carefully structured. The researchers had to control every possible variable. And THIS is where I relish my role as PARENT. I don't have to control for variables or follow a super-specific schedule. So I take some license to use the concept of spaced learning to teach my children things I think are important. And you can, too.
Here are a few examples of how I use spaced learning to teach my children things I think are valuable- things I want them to remember forever. You should decide what you want YOUR children to know forever, and try the same technique.
Where in the World? World and U.S. Geography
When I taught in Washington, D.C., one of the trickiest concepts I had to teach was city/state/country, and the idea of state capitals and the national capital This was especially confusing to my students because they didn't live in a state and they happened to live in the nation's capital.
Even for students outside of Washington, D.C., geography can be a tough subject. It's particularly difficult to teach with massed learning: quick- learn all of the countries in the world! Not likely. It's also hard to find the time in the busy school schedule to regularly explore and discuss maps to really solidify an understanding of our world in a physical and political sense.
According to the NAEP, known as The Nation's Reportcard, only 27% of eighth graders are proficient in geography. I'm apparently not the only teacher who finds this concept difficult to convey. Especially because its tricky, it's a perfect candidate for spacing.
Growing up, my parents had a laminated map of the world taped to our kitchen table. This violated many design rules, but it became part of the conversation and a reference right there in the center of our home. Also, we used it to help us answer Jeopardy Questions- my family's favorite game show. (Yes, we were cool. And I may or may not have played the clarinet in the band.)
In my house, I have hung maps in my kids' rooms and include them in the nightly routine. This ensures that our map-time will NEVER be skipped, because my children will do ANYTHING to delay bedtime. After we read each night, we look at two places on the map. Usually, I point out a country, its capital, a continent or some physical features. We have been at this a couple of years, so now I can ask my 5 year-old son to point things out and he looks for countries, finds states on the Pacific Ocean, or some other fairly quick map task.
We do some map-looking and map-talking nightly, but we might only hit on a specific part of the world once every week or two. And that's the element of spacing- spreading out the learning.
If you want to use spacing to teach geography in your home, you can buy inexpensive maps for your child's room, print maps to hang in the bathroom or keep in the car, hang some awesome vintage maps, or stick some map placemats under your plates. Just make sure that your child can see the maps up close.
And then make it a point to "space out" some map learning: check out continents over breakfast, look for long rivers while using mouthwash, find the city that novel was set in... the possibilities are endless.
Vocabulary is one of the five components of reading instruction. It is strongly linked to reading comprehension, and children need to learn thousands of words a year to stay on track with their learning. And while teachers do a lot of hard work to teach vocabulary in school, I try to add to this learning with my own version of spaced learning.
First, I use adult words in conversation. No, I'm not talking about swearing, although I have been guilty of that on occasion. Despite my explanation of why I am concise when giving my children directions, when we are just chatting, I try to use the same words I would use with adults and fully explain things my children notice.
I don't expect them to pick up the word meanings right away, or even the first few times they hear them. I just hope that spacing out the word exposure will help them learn the words eventually, and ideally retain them.
Here are some examples:
Instead of "The ball is spinning", I might say "The ball is rotating".
Rather than use "interesting" a lot, I try to sprinkle in some "fascinating" or "intriguing"
When the children ask about a stick bug on the tree, I say "It's so well camouflaged! What a great adaptation to protect it from predators".
When we are at museums, I try to read as much of the plaques as I can squeeze in before my kiddos get bored. Sometimes this is only a few words, and that's ok. Next time. I'm spacing it out.
The beauty of spacing is that it's ok to touch on something briefly, if you plan to come back to it.
I have detailed some ways I use spacing to teach my children things I want them to know for the long-haul. (Also, I think I covered how cool I was in High School). What about you? Do you use the same technique at home? Do you think it could help? Let me know in the comments, or ask the teacher a question.
Carpenter, Shana; Cepeda, Nicholas; Rohrer, Doug; Kang, Sean; Pashler, Harold. Using Spacing to Enhance Diverse Forms of Learning: Review of Recent Research and Implications for Instruction. Educational Psychology Review; Sep2012, Vol. 24 Issue 3, p369.
Rohrer, Doug; Pashler, Harold. Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time. Current Directions in Psychological Science; August 2007 vol.16 No4, 183-186.
Sedita, Joan. Effective Vocabulary Instruction. Insights on Learning Disabilities; 2(1) 33-45, 2005
Son, Lisa; Simon, Dominic. Distributed Learning: Data, Metacognition, and Educational Implications. Educational Psychology Review; Sep2012, Vol. 24 Issue 3, p379.