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The spacing effect: little and often

Research - what there is of it - shows that humans tend to retain information better when they learn in short bursts at intervals rather in one big chunk. To be anecdotal, I find that when I am learning a song for my barbershop chorus I learn more effectively if I listen to my recordings for a short while at a time, leaving at least a day between each learning session. If I want to improve my stick skills on the drums I get more success practising ten minutes each day, rather than 70 minutes in one weekly session. I wonder what your experience is?

I thought about this after reading a post on the TES MFL forum from a teacher who is to be lumbered next year with two hour lessons for languages. Two hours!

My own hunch about this is that it is better to have four shorter sessions of language learning a week, rather than two long ones. These days many schools use one hour slots which means that students can only have two or three language sessions a week. I believe some schools like 70 minute lessons, while others use even longer slots. At Ripon Grammar School we had a 40 x 40 minute timetable, which meant that at KS3 we had four or even five language lessons per week (one language).

Shorter lessons encourage the teacher to work at pace, they allow for considerable target language input nearly every day and ensure that pupils are less likely to get bored. The spaced learning effect should lead to better retention and acquisition. A further advantage is that, if school is disrupted by a special event on one day, you lose less time.

Are there any downsides? Well, you might argue that a little time is lost in moving around school, but the considerable number of double lessons in a 40 x 40 minute means this is not a great issue. Short lessons can make it harder to plan for assessments. Some activities may benefit from a longer time in one chunk. Compared with the benefits of "little and often", these seem to me to be side issues.

The surprisingly little research done on this supports the idea that "spaced learning" is more effective. In other words, the "little and often" principle is sound. When one bears this in mind, along with the (no doubt related) fact that children lose concentration quickly I question how effective timetabling is for languages. One advantage of operating with shorter periods of 35 or 40 minutes is that you can offer double periods for practical subjects which require more time and shorter periods for subjects where repeated practice is more successful (languages and, I surmise, maths for example).

For the theory behind this:

Timetabling is a fundamental part of schooling. At the moment linguists have to make do with a "one-size-fits- all" policy which works against pupils who already are handicapped by having far too little time overall as it is.


  1. Our students mainly have one two-hour session per week of MFL. There is a considerable benefit to this model in terms of managing behaviour in the corridors. However, those classes who have two one-hour sessions do seem to make better progress. I'd be interested to see how it might work with 30 minute lessons, though it sounds more difficult to plan for...

  2. Thanks for commenting. I never found planning a problem with 40 minute lessons. You do have to be flexible if some things go quicker or slower than expected, but this would be the case with any system. With 4 x 30 minutes you might be able to sustain 10 minutes of solid oral work per lesson i.e. 40 minutes in total. Would you do 40 minutes oral work in a 2 hour lesson? I doubt it.


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