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Can Your Design Choices Control Your Learner’s Brain? Take Advantage of Spaced Learning

Can Your Design Choices Control Your Learner’s Brain? Take Advantage Of Spaced Learning

What is spaced learning? 

Spaced learning is part of Neuroscience and learning science and how the brain works. 

Some Background

In my post on learning activities, I talked about focused and diffuse mode in the brain. Focused mode is when you’re working very hard and intently focusing on something. Diffuse mode is when you’re doing something else and your brain is working in the background making sense of what you have stored in your working memory.  This can be what you learned during the focused mode.

Another part of the science of learning is how important retrieval is for what you’re learning. 

This is important here because retrieval signals to your brain that this information you are retrieving is important. It needs to be remembered. 

The more often you retrieve something the more important your brain thinks it is. And it makes a much more concerted effort to make it permanent in long-term memory.

And This Applies to Spaced Learning How?

Spaced learning takes advantage of this bit of knowledge about the brain and how it works. Spaced learning works like this: You learn something, you study it, you focus on it for a while, then you leave it alone you go do something else. It’s essentially going into diffuse mode, but it also has a time element to it. You know you are going to come back to it a day or two later. 

If you come back to it a few days later and try to retrieve it, your brain may have to dig pretty deep to get it because it had time to fade. But you have retrieved it soon enough to when you learned it that it’s still there, and it’s still available. 

If you need to go back and look at the material one more time to strengthen that memory, you can. Both actions show the brain this is important stuff. 

It’s kind of like writing something that’s going to fade, but right before it completely finishes fading you go back over it with a pen. And then it fades again, but slower. And a few days later you go back over it with a pen again until finally, it’s permanent. 

That’s kind of what spaced learning does for you. You study something, then you stop focusing on it. You might think about it but you don’t think about it really hard, you just kind of let it be in your brain. Then you come back and you touch on it again, and you say ‘Okay, what did I remember from this?’. 

That retrieval is strengthening your memory. It is telling your brain this information is super-important, keep tabs on it. 

Steal Its Superpower

How can you take advantage of this neuroscience in your online course design?

One thing you can do is build in activities that can only be accomplished over time. 

An example of this might be to have your students do three days’ worth of observations and draw their own conclusions in order to compile enough information to move forward with the lesson. 

This is a forced spaced-learning activity. 

They’re not going to be thinking about this activity all three days. They’re going to go about their life and do things that they would normally do. Then they stop and do their assignment because they have to do a little bit each day. 

So now they are retrieving what you taught them and applying it. You’re taking complete advantage of this space learning. And students don’t really have a choice because you designed it that way. 

Now let me step back and say students always have a choice. They could choose not to do the assignment. And that happens.

Designing for Engagement

One of the ways to not let that happen is to make sure that the learning activity that they do is an integral part of the next lesson. Build on what they just learned. Do it in a way that if they don’t do the assignment they’re actually going to be a little bit lost in the next lesson. That will really encourage those who usually skip over lesson activities to do them, to engage. 

A really important part of this, though, is that these activities cannot be fluff. They must move the learning forward. Everything in your course needs to move the learning forward. It needs to be as lean as possible because you are building for very busy people. You need to get them from point A to point B as fast as you can.

Now that’s not to say you can’t put in enrichment activities for those who want to explore a little further, but that’s a topic for another episode. 

When Does This Work?

When should you use this magical space learning in your course?

This is really, really good for when you have a lot of dense material to cover. It allows people to pull back from just sitting in absorbing the dense material and lets them actually work with it. It gives them a reason to move away from sitting and trying to absorb. 

And it slows down those people who would just sit and absorb all of the lessons in one sitting.

I’m one of those people. I know how that works. 

If the activity engages me, if I feel like I’m going to get value out of the activity, then I will do it. But if I don’t have to, if I don’t see the value in it, there is no way I’m going to do that activity. I’m going to keep sitting and listening and crocheting or playing a video game or whatever it is I’m doing while I’m paying attention to the course. And make no mistake, your students are probably doing the same thing. 

I’ll Say It Again

To review, there are two places where spaced learning activities are really, really good. I mean exceptionally good. It’s almost a you-should-incorporate-spaced-learning-no-matter-what situation.

One is when you are teaching dense material. You can break it up and give students a chance to loop back over it multiple times. That it’ll deepen the learning. 

And the other is during a self-paced course where you run the risk of students just blowing through the material without deeply engaging with it. And stepping back just a bit, any course that is helping study for a certification exam is usually a really dense course.

This works well for those kinds of courses. If that’s the kind of online course you are designing, be sure to build in spaced learning activities.

But What About the Rest of Us?

It’s also good for regular classes. You don’t have to just use it in dense stuff. if you want people to come back and work with material regularly to continue to practice over and over again, this is a really good learning activity for that.

For example, if you’re doing a photography course and your lesson is on composition, well you can have students go out and take pictures each day for 3 days and post 5 of them a day with a short reflection on the composition of each.

They have to post five a day for 3 days. You are requiring them to space it out. Now granted, some students may take all the pictures in one day and then just space out their posting. That’s likely going to happen. But they are probably going to at least get a little bit of something out of it by reading their five posts the second day as they’re getting ready to post them and then again the third day. 

In Case You Skipped All the Way Down Here

I want to reiterate how important spaced learning is for self-paced learning classes.

It is important to slow the learner down so that they engage with the material. You’re not standing in front of them to slow them down as you would be in a classroom. You can’t watch and see if they get it all. You have to build in the lessons that you hope will teach them what they need to know and have them practice what they need to know on a regular basis. 

Another modification that you can do for a paced course is you can put students in small groups and require that everyone in the group do something together with their activity before they can move on. This gives them a learning community where they have someone to bounce ideas off of so they’re learning from each other. But it also makes them accountable to the other group members. This interdependence requires that everybody do what they need to do in order for everyone in the group to move forward. So they’re going to encourage each other.

Your Turn

I want you to think about your course and design two different spaced learning activities that you might use in it. You may not end up using these at all, but this is good practice and we know how important practice is. Design the activities and reflect on why this activity would help students.


When you’re done, choose the one that you either want most feedback on or the one that you really liked the most and post it and your reflection in the comments of the Ep 7 Spaced Learning video

I want you to read what others wrote as well because that’s going to help you gain insight into other how course creators think and it may inspire you. I look forward to reading what you wrote and contributing myself.

Want More?

Check out these posts on engaging online students:

You can also download my free ebook Online Course Creation Made Easy: 25 Activities to Engage Your Online Learners.

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