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Spacing Effect and Testing Effect

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In educational contexts, teachers generally consider tests or exams as assessment devices to measure the students’ learning of certain contents over a specific time period

In different circumstances, tests are not applied frequently, like once for each set of contents or at the end of the term or semester for example. In addition, both teachers and students tend to see them as a bother. Recent studies, however, have demonstrated that tests positively affect the long-term memory (long-term information retention), suggesting that individuals tested for one kind of material, with successful recall, will better remember this material in the near future. Researchers have called this phenomenon the “testing effect”.

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For example, many deficient processing theories are based on the idea that massed presentations are encoded to a lesser degree than spaced presentations. Massed presentations are encoded to a lesser degree because, when presenting the exact same stimulus over and over again, learners habituate to the stimulus. However, in the case of generalization tasks, presentations are likely to be quite variable and, consequently, learners are less likely to habituate to massed presentations. In short, this work demonstrates that spaced learning promotes several levels of generalization, and thus current theories of the spacing effect must be revised in order to account for these findings. Why do spaced learning schedules promote both simple and complex generalization? This is an open question and definitely an area for future research. One possibility is that spaced learning provides opportunities for forgetting between learning presentations. Relevant features are likely to be present on subsequent learning presentations, reactivated in memory, and thus be forgotten to a lesser degree than irrelevant features. Consequently, when the learner is required to generalize at a later point in time, the learner will remember relevant features and thus generalize based upon these characteristics

In the case of complex generalization, perceptual features are likely to be forgotten, whereas the underlying abstract structure is likely to be remembered to a greater degree. Indeed, the most basic mechanisms of memory (i.e., forgetting) may be the same mechanisms that support our most sophisticated forms of learning (i.e., complex generalization).

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When individuals review close to the point of nearly forgetting, our brains reinforce the memory and add new detail. This is why teaching others, and writing practice papers are effective ways for students to revise and highlight what’s been forgotten in their own learning. Practice tests are an effective method of studying because of their level of difficulty. Difficulty makes individuals recall information instead of just recognizing it when studying. The harder it is to remember a piece of information while practicing it, the better it will be retained or recalled later. The more strain it takes to remember information initially, the more mental labor an individual causes themselves, resulting in the action of recalling being more natural in the future (Delaney, P. F., Verkoeijen, 2010). The information an individual encounters on a regular basis becomes effortless to recognize in the future. An example of this includes an individual’s telephone number, directions to work, or names of coworkers. Though from time to time an individual may forget these things, because they are repeated so often, they are typically easy for individuals to access and remember. The associations people form between words also has been speculated to impact the spacing effect. Semantic priming describes why it’s easier to remember words or sentences linked or connected to one another

For example, the sentence “the nurse and the doctor go to the hospital,” is easier to remember than “the artist and the driver go to the supermarket”. This is because, in the first sentence, nurse, doctor, and hospital are linked, making it easier to remember. It’s also been theorized that repetition over time primes individual’s to make connections to information or words in sentences. The spacing effect can be used effectively by individuals, to better learn and retain information. Improving our memory and learning throughout our life, can greatly help us succeed. By capitalizing on the cognitive benefits of the spacing effect, and incorporating effective learning processes, we can better ourselves, our decision-making abilities, and our learning capabilities (Vlach, H. A., & Sandhofer, 2012).

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Thus, research has shown the success of the verbatim repetition spacing effect time and time again in the laboratory; however, the current study shows a need for additional research on how spacing works for tasks and topics closer to what students will be learning in the classroom before the spacing effect can be advocated as the default best practice for all learning situations. If the ideal conditions benefiting massed versus spaced practice can be established through future research, students would then have greater success in real educational settings.

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Vlach, H. A., & Sandhofer, C. M. (2012). Distributing Learning Over Time: The Spacing Effect in Children’s Acquisition and Generalization of Science Concepts. Child Development,83(4), 1137-1144. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01781.x

Kornell, N. (2009). Optimising learning using flashcards: Spacing is more effective than cramming. Applied Cognitive Psychology,23(9), 1297-1317. doi:10.1002/acp.1537

Fennis, Bob; Stroebe, Wolfgang (2010). The Psychology of Advertising. Hove: Psychology Press. p. 104. ISBN 978-0203853238.

The Spacing Effect: How to Improve Learning and Maximize Retention. (2018, December 31). Retrieved from

Delaney, P. F., Verkoeijen, P. P., & Spirgel, A. (2010). Spacing and Testing Effects. Psychology of Learning and Motivation The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory, 63-147. doi:10.1016/s0079-7421(10)53003-2

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