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Spacing learning for greater impact (with games)

Looking to make a bigger impact with your learning initiatives? Sometimes researching learning theory can provide inspiration. I recently read a great summary of the research on the spacing effect (also known as spaced repetition) by Will Thalheimer. Doesn’t sound interesting enough? Maybe these quotes from the article will get you interested:

“The spacing effect is one of the most reliable findings in the learning research, but it is, unfortunately, one of the least utilized learning methods in the workplace learning field.”

“The spacing effect is one of the oldest and best documented phenomena in the history of learning and memory research.”

So what is the spacing effect exactly? Better learning happens when learners are exposed to content more than once over a period of time. In practice, you present learners with a concept, take a break of some length of time, and then present that concept again. It can be presented in a number of different ways, from simple repetitions to any number of variations – stories, exercises, examples, games, discussions, etc. (Guess which one I’m going to address in greater depth shortly?)

Basically, it boils down to this: Don’t hit your learners with extraordinary amounts of information at once, and only once. They tend to forget it quickly afterwards, negating the effectiveness of your instruction. Plan to present it more than once over a period of time with scheduled breaks in between.

The body of research is clear on this – spacing learning actually builds a stronger long-term memory. It limits learning fatigue and makes learners less likely to forget concepts. By spacing learning, you can even reduce the number of times you need to repeat the concept.

The spacing of learning is even more effective when the practice requires retrieval, rather than just presentation. (In other words, asking participants to remember something they have learned.) Multiple studies have shown that repeatedly quizzing learners, rather than repeatedly presenting them with content, provides greater benefits.

So, you ask, how do I do it? How do I quiz learners multiple times, with effective spacing, while not boring them? Certainly, games are a great way. Because games are engaging by design, you can use them to repeat the presentation of concepts and it won’t feel as tedious to the learner, and by forcing them to retrieve knowledge it will also be more effective.

If you have a learning event scheduled (either online or in person), use games before the event to introduce key topics. Make sure there is a break – a day, a week, a month, etc. After the learning event (and another such scheduled break), launch another game to reinforce those topics.

A variation of this strategy could start with an eLearning course. After a short break, use game-based activities to reintroduce and reinforce. Throw in another break, and then bring the audience into the classroom for an immersive role-playing exercise where they demonstrate their understanding with their peers.

If you’re using a fully game-based strategy (which we at mLevel would certainly endorse), deploy a variety of games over a period of time. In week 1, start with an Academy activity to ensure that all the concepts are covered. For week 2, launch a Fast Lane or Quiz Ball game to assess that knowledge. Finally, in week 3 give them a scenario-based Path Finder activity so they can use their understanding of the concepts in a simulated environment.

So before you put your head back down and plow ahead on developing your eLearning course, think about the spacing effect. Remember that the research shows it’s effective. Consider using game-based activities as a great way to achieve the spacing effect without boring your learners. Then just do it!

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2 thoughts on “Spacing learning for greater impact (with games)”

  1. Avatar
    April Gardner

    Does this apply to just learning, or does it also apply to getting messsaging across (like if you’re trying to launch a new product, or want people to take a specific action)?

  2. Avatar
    John Deligiannis

    Hi April! I don’t have as much background in the research here, but I don’t see how it wouldn’t apply. The examples you provide here seem very much like instructional objectives. Think about your favorite jingles – it’s after hearing them multiple times over a time period (with space in between) that they really start to burrow into your brain.

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