What happens after your teaching session? Preventing forgetting through spaced practice

This post (like its predecessor) is another excerpt from my contribution to a chapter in the recently-published collection Genomics and Society. This excerpt was heavily influenced by Donald Clark's posts about Hermann Ebbinghaus' research into memory and about spaced practice.


An ounce of practice is worth more than tons of preaching.

Mahatma Gandhi

While well-designed teaching sessions and grappling with scenarios can encourage strong cognitive connections with important knowledge, these connections are liable to be weakened if the material is not revisited and its application is not repeatedly practised. A common weakness of so much train- ing and education is to run the class or the ‘sheep-dip’ training event or the online session as a single, one-off event without any planned, later activity to promote reinforcement through spaced practice. This flies in the face of research into memory and forgetting which suggests that most of what we supposedly teach and learn is lost within minutes and hours.

In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who pioneered studies of memory and learning, developed his thesis of the exponential nature of forgetting and the speed with which information is lost when there is no attempt to retain it. Ebbinghaus is known for his ‘forgetting curve’ which suggests that people tend to continually halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they actively review the learned material. Ebbinghaus also studied and suggested the value of practising at spaced intervals over time to promote retention.

A typical representation of the forgetting curve.

(Image by Icez, from the Wikimedia Commons.)

If so many of our ‘traditional’ means of teaching and training are as unproductive as the forgetting curve suggests, how might we design some spaced practice into our genetics education and training to promote retention?

Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you have more than one teaching or training session, beginning the session by requiring learners to apply what was covered in the previous session to a new scenario or context is a very worthwhile activity.
  • Use e-mail. A group e-mail to all of your learners, pre-planned to be sent at a specific point in time after your teaching session, can push your learner to a reinforcement activity, which could be as simple as text in the e-mail, a link to an article, graphic, or video or a new scenario or piece of e-learning. Any activity which prompts your learners to further thinking about, and application of, important knowledge will help to fix the learning in the long-term memory.
  • Use online discussion or social media. Set up a discussion board or an online group which you invite, or better still require, your learners to visit to grapple with a new question or scenario that you post for them. If you do not have access to any such tools and your learners are familiar with Twitter, you could create a hashtag for your course or session and then ask learners to respond to a question or activity, quoting the hashtag in each of their posts. When they click on the tag in any post, your learners can then see all of the posts containing the tag grouped together in one place. The social media hashtag is a simple tool for keeping a group of learners together for some spaced practice, revisiting and rethinking a topic over time.

The tone of voice and the approach adopted by BMJ Learning in its promotional e-mails about its online courses for medics offer an excellent, generalisable model for how both scenarios and spaced practice can be used to promote learning. Several days after your teaching session, why not contact your learners with a piece of communication — with less clinical detail but with the same problem-focused approach — like the following opening paragraph of a BMJ Learning e-mail (24/11/2014).

A 69 year old man attends your clinic for a CVD risk check. He has a history of ischaemic heart disease and stenting four years ago. You are surprised to note that he has never been on a statin. His blood tests demonstrate chronic kidney disease stage 3a with an estimated GFR of 52 ml/min/1.73m2. Which statin should you start him on and at what dose?


Header image CC BY Becca Swift

Stuart Sutherland

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