Educators are always on the look-out for ways to make their teaching more effective, and it seems the secret to effective learning may be less study not more.
Researchers have found evidence to support the theory that taking regular breaks helps embed learning, a finding that has implications not just for schools and colleges but for businesses that run employee training.
The idea has been developed by Paul Kelley, a former high school principal whose interest in sleep and circadian rhythms led him to introduce later start times for students, on the basis that teenage brains are not at their best first thing in the morning.
As well as sleep, Kelley, now an honorary research associate at Oxford University and a past president of education for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, has also explored the role of time patterns in encoding long-term memories.
Broadly speaking, this works on the basis that memories are created by neurons firing in the brain, but for these memories to become embedded, the neurons have to then be left undisturbed for a period of time.
In other words, if the neurons are distracted while they are making the changes that are involved in creating memories, then the creation of memories will be impaired.
But while this has a respectable scientific pedigree, there has been little research on the impact of this approach, known as spaced learning, in real educational settings.
So Kelley and his partners approached the University of Surrey Business School in England, who agreed to carry out a trial to see if it worked.
The cohort of 600 business students were divided into three groups. They all covered the same material for a module on advertising, but in markedly different ways: one group had the traditional academic input of lectures and seminars; the second group were self-directed learners, and the third were spaced learners.
For the spaced learners, this meant their hour-long ‘lecture’ involved short bursts of intensive learning, punctuated by “breaks” lasting 10 minutes each where they would complete unrelated tasks, such as trying to copy a Picasso drawing.
After a week, the students were tested, with the test itself being broken into three parts: testing their knowledge acquisition, its application and whether they could extend what they had learned into material that had not been covered in the course.
The results for knowledge acquisition showed that the spaced learners remembered 20% more than students who had the traditional experience, and 23% more than the self-directed learners.
In other words, students who took regular breaks over an hour remembered a fifth more than those who sat through an hour-long lecture.
For the traditional learners, 78% of the material they remembered was in the first half of the lecture and only 22% in the second half, suggesting that in an hour-long lecture, the first half is four times more effective than the second half.
When it came to knowledge application, spaced learners were still ahead, although the gap had narrowed. This group scored 13% higher than the traditional learners and 19% higher than directed learners.
As the tests got more complicated still with the extension test, the gap closed further. Spaced learners scored 10% higher than traditional learners and 15% more than directed learners, once the results had been corrected to allow for spaced learners having a higher knowledge acquisition.
Professor Andy Adcroft, head of Surrey Business School, said the results showed that spaced learning could be more effective than traditional methods in getting students to understand key concepts.
Although the results are consistent with those found elsewhere, the scale of the study — involving 600 students — makes it of particular value.
He counselled against reading too much into the findings. The novelty factor could explain some of the difference in test scores. Spaced learning also involved attention-grabbing videos which were tightly focused, and that would also have had an impact. More trials are also needed to see if the results can be replicated.
But he said there was significant potential to use spaced learning as part of a degree course. Rather than replacing traditional methods, it could be complementary to them.
“Where I see it as having an impact at university level is as part of a blended approach,” he said. “We could use spaced learning for foundation material and key principles, but we could also blend it with more classroom-based activities.”
But while talk of a revolution in learning may be premature, it does at least contribute towards challenging the traditional approach.
“There is a huge amount of work to be done on the relationship between teaching and academic performance,” Professor Adcroft added. “Where this is incredibly useful for me is that it starts the debate about whether there is a better way of doing it.”
Paul Kelley sees potential in spaced learning not just in schools and colleges, but for businesses too.
“It is incredibly expensive for business to keep people up-to-date,” he said. “There has got to be a more cost-effective and efficient way of doing it than getting someone to come out and taking a big chunk out of their working day. This could save an enormous amount of money.”
He acknowledged that many educators will be skeptical of yet another neuroscience-led intervention. Many are only now shaking off the shackles of learning styles. But he said it would be a mistake to ignore what science has to offer.
“Education is being run by fads where people don’t test what they’re doing and if they do test it they’re not encouraged to do it properly. Education has to work with neuroscience and it has to apply science and keep up with science.”