Spaced learning is an approach to instruction and review of learned content that alternates short, intensely focused periods of learning with breaks, repeated over increasingly long periods of time. Spaced learning was originally developed for classroom use, but it can be adapted to eLearning. This article outlines the benefits and basic design approach to spaced learning, and provides information about an online conference in February, 2020 about design and execution of the concept for eLearning.

Spaced learning benefits

Research shows that repetition of material in multiple learning sessions aids in establishing long-term memory of the material. Experimental investigation in an academic setting (secondary education in biology) found that "test scores after an hour’s spaced learning were not significantly different from controls’ test scores after four months teaching." (See the reference at the end of this article.) This suggests that spaced learning is worth considering for suitable topics where recall of details from memory is the desired outcome, such as product training for sales teams or language training.

Spaced learning design

Spaced learning in conventional use in education usually consists of sessions of three intensive instruction periods, separated by 10-minute periods of distraction material that is not connected to the learning outcome.

Each of the three initial instruction periods in a given session presents the same information, but with a different emphasis in each instruction period. The sequence of the instruction periods in a session is “present, recall, understand.” The first input session is often a lecture supported by slides; this is delivered "rapid-fire" and the learners are not allowed to take notes or to discuss the content of the lecture. The second session adds recall through simple quizzes or question-and-answer. In the third session, learners apply what they learned to a problem or task. Breaks between input sessions give the brain time and opportunity to embed the information in memory. It is essential that learners do something very different during the breaks so that they are not simply consciously rehearsing what they experienced in the preceding input session.

The initial session is repeated multiple times over gradually increasing time spans of days, weeks, or longer; the number of these repetitions or "review sessions" depends on the nature of the content and the time available. This strengthens recall of the content.

Spaced learning adaptation for online use

The classroom model of spaced learning is not practical for eLearning adaptation in most enterprise settings. However, the concept and principles involved can be applied online.

Managing who should repeat what content and when it should be repeated could quickly become a task that would consume the learning manager’s day. Fortunately, automation tools exist to create a sequence of content that can be delivered over time on any schedule the manager chooses.

For example, upon completion of an online course, an email marketing platform can enroll a learner in a drip campaign that delivers pre-defined sequence of content supporting spaced repetition of the key learning objectives from the course. After enrollment, the email deliveries are totally automated. Other email marketing and learning tools include a host of features that facilitate application of spaced learning principles without bogging the process down in the burdensome details of managing the delivery of content.

Learn more

The eLearning Guild is offering an online conference February 19-20, 2020, Making Learning Stick, during which Mike Taylor will present session 501, Spaced Learning: Why It's So Good & How to Get Started. Mike will do a brief research-based introduction to use of spaced learning online. He will address the difference between using spacing for presenting and retrieving information. He will show how to use email marketing tools such as MailChimp and Spark, built specifically for this purpose.

Registration for Making Learning Stick is now open online.


Kelley, Paul, and Terry Whatson. “Making long-term memories in minutes: a spaced learning pattern from memory research in education.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Vol. 7. 25 September 2013.