Repetitive Spaced Out Learning: Making Learning Stick

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

 Harry Bahrick & Lynda Hall (2005)

What really makes learning stick? For adult learners, practicality, applicability, and repetition are key. But how do you capitalize on repetition in eLearning? The answer seems to lie in repetitive spaced out learning. Spaced out learning is not about dreamy, head-in-the-clouds content creations or fantastical trips to Mars on a rocket ships, it is simply putting time in between learning sessions. Real learning doesn’t usually occur in one-time events; it is something that is repeated, practiced, and honed.

In the study of learning retention, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus presented the Forgetting Curve. Basically, Ebbinghaus theorized that learners forget 50-80% of what they learn in simply a matter of days. Learning retention must occur for the learning to be generalized to one’s job; so, if learners forget the content so quickly, what is the remedy for retention? The remedy is spaced out repetition of key points and core content. Repetitive spaced out learning design respects the fact that real learning must take place over time and that placing spans of time between the learning moments encourages better the recall.

Examples of spaced out learning are:

  • Packaging the eLearning content in short chunks to be delivered at regular intervals throughout an employee’s onboarding and beyond with content that includes the same core principles but demonstrates them in different scenarios.
  • Creating training quizzes or review questions at the end if each chapter or section that include 50% of core subjects/content and 50% of new content.
  • Creating flashcards that are delivered in learning segments that contain both new and old content
  • Instituting review and feedback sessions that bring people together daily or weekly to discuss and review core learnings and how to apply and connect them with new subjects

Two keys to making the spaced out method work are to repeat the same information in different contexts and to provide immediate and corrective feedback, as needed. Repeating the same information in a different context allows the learner to experience and practice the content in different ways. An example of this is the Red Cross online portion of basic CPR training. The content is delivered online and learners practice the CPR steps in various scenarios with different people on screen so that he or she can elicit recall and apply the specific process multiple times and in multiple scenarios. The second key point to delivering spaced out repetitive learning is to provide accurate and corrective feedback so that the learner does not repeat or practice the content with mistakes leading to the person’s memory of the activity as faulty. Feedback also aptly closes the learning loop and lets the learner know whether he or she is in the right track.

Using both micro and macro spacings between learning moments complete with repetitive information that builds on itself like the bricks of a wall, as well as repeating the content in different contexts, is one of the most effective ways to aid in learning retention. Additionally, learners will better remember the content if the space between the learning moments leans toward the longer rather than shorter span of time. “A Primer on Spaced Repetition and Feedback Loops” by Knowledge Guru states:

"The key to long-term memory formation is not the amount of time spent learning, but the amount of time between learning. We learn best when our brain cells are switched on and off, with short periods of learning and breaks in between. By switching your learner’s brain cells “on” (during learning) and “off” again (during breaks), the learner’s unconscious has time to internalize the knowledge and the repetition results in long-term memories. Research has also shown that longer breaks between teaching sessions can result in longer-lasting memories."

Repetitive spaced out learning design greatly supports the use of micro-learning moments to reinforce content and retention and demands that content creators be systematic and deliberate in the implementation of repetitive content. By creating new brain pathways that are traveled repeatedly, the learning becomes second nature.


Knowledge Guru: primer_on_spaced_repetition_and_feedback_loops.pdf

Thalheimer, W. (2006, February). Spacing Learning Events Over Time: What the Research

Says. Retrieved November 31, 2006, from

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