What is Spaced Learning – Learn Anything Faster!

By on June 5, 2021

Spaced learning is a learning approach that can drastically increase speed and retention. This can be applied in some interesting ways, and I talk about it all the time, so I thought it deserved its own post.

This is that post.

What is Spaced Learning?

Spaced learning means breaking your learning sessions into smaller blocks, then spacing them throughout the day. Instead of sitting down to revise for an exam for 2 hours, you would instead have two 1 hour sessions. Or perhaps 4, thirty minute sessions.

See also: Greasing the Groove – Batman Skills Training

Studies show that this simple change can significantly improve learning outcomes (study). The really interesting part of all this, is that it can also apply to skill acquisition. If you’re trying to master a handstand, for example, you should therefore practice a few times during the day, rather than during a single workout. This is also referred to as “distributed practice.”

Of course, this doesn’t work for all things. If you did the same thing with your 1-rep max squat, you wouldn’t get a chance to recover and you might well cause injury!

Why Does Distributed Practice Work?

So, what’s going on here?

See also: The Contextual Interference May Give a Boost to Training

There are a few explanations as to why spaced learning might be effective.

For one, spaced learning ensures you don’t become tired and disinterested. There’s only so long you can maintain maximum focus, and only so long before technique breaks down. By splitting your training up, you give yourself longer breaks and start each new attempt with more energy.

Distributed practice

There’s also a “cool off” period with any type of learning. After memorizing a subject, or practicing a skill, the associated neurons and nerves will experience “post activation potentiation.” In other words: they are more likely to be triggered again in future (this is why you feel like you’re floating after bouncing on a trampoline). When you employ a distributed practice strategy, you will gain multiple cool-off periods. This ultimately increases the amount of time that the involved pathways are active!

See also: Why You Should Spread Your Workouts Throughout the Day

This is also why starting to practice is often the hardest part (once you’re in “the flow,” things come a lot easier). Each time you start a fresh learning session, you need to start again “from cold.” This might also mean retrieving information from long-term memory and “loading” it into your working memory. The result could be that you become better at retrieving that information.  

How to Make the Most of It

Now you have a good idea of what spaced learning is all about, how do you make the most of it?

For training, think about how you design the workouts themselves. For example, if you are focused on learning new skills, using a circuit design might make more sense than tackling each type of exercise in order.

A circuit design might make more sense than tackling each type of exercise in order.

At the very least, you might benefit from placing some handstand practice at the very start of your workout and again at the very end.

This also makes a case for dividing your workouts throughout the day, for greasing the groove, and for employing “incidental training.” A common example of greasing the groove is to keep a pull up bar in your doorway and to perform pull ups every time you pass through. This is an option that is advocated by Pavel Tsatsouline (who, I believe, coined the term).

See also: Incidental Training: Everything Can Be Training

For Learning Information

For learning information, using post-its is a great strategy. You can place the things you need to learn around the house, and that way be exposed to them repeatedly. I also like to set reminders on my phone.

Using post-its is a great strategy.

There are a number of interesting “learning systems” that build off the principles of spaced learning.

The Leitner system, for example, uses flashcards but increases the intervals between them. The information on the cards gets sorted into boxes that each represent how well you know that information. Failure to correctly describe the contents of the card, result in the card being moved into the more difficult box.

Some Interesting Implications of Spaced Learning

There are some interesting implications that come from spaced learning.

First: thinking about this with regards to advertising is a bit creepy. We typically see ads spaced throughout our day, which drastically increases the likelihood of us remembering those things! Eww.

Skill acquisition

The other implication, that I find perhaps most fascinating, is that we are seemingly built to learn “passively.” This could be part of the reason that language immersion works so well for learning a foreign tongue. Language immersion is a strategy that suggests you should simply expose yourself to a foreign language to learn it best. This would automatically lead to things like spaced learning, as you would be constantly exposed to certain words and phrases, rather than learning them in organized “blocks.” This would also lead us to benefit from the contextual interference effect (resource).

The best training is not training. The best learning is not learning. The body is designed to adapt to its environment, so change the environment to change the organism! Spaced learning is powerful, because it changes the environment.

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

2 Comments

  1. Robert Fong says:

    Going to be trying out the Leitner system for my personal training certification. Cool read

  2. James Murphy says:

    Helpful information. I’m going through nursing school and need all the help with my studies I can possibly find. The memorization is rather dense. Your articles are always very informative an applicable for any walk in life. I greatly appreciate your hard work and due diligence with thorough research as well. It is funny how a number of things I have learned in school, you have covered on your channel. Makes for perfect material review. Best of luck to you in your new ventures of making this your full time focus now.

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