There are many publications explaining advantages of spaced repetition. I found a summary of some of them here.

While a lot of studies show many advantages of spaced repetition, it is not formally applied to higher education. Why is that?

UPDATE 1: In order to clarify my question, I added a quote form this publication:

Furthermore, even after acknowledging the benefits of spacing, changing teaching practices proved to be enormously difficult. Delaney et al (2010) wrote: “Anecdotally, high school teachers and college professors seem to teach in a linear fashion without repetition and give three or four noncumulative exams.” (p. 130). Focusing on the math domain, where one might expect a very easy-to-review-and-to-space strategy, Rohrer (2009) points out that mathematics textbooks usually present topics in a non-spaced, non-mixed fashion. Even much earlier, Vash (1989) had written: “Education policy setters know perfectly well that [spaced practice] works better [than massed practice]. They don’t care. It isn’t tidy. It doesn’t let teachers teach a unit and dust off their hands quickly with a nice sense of ‘Well, that’s done.’” (p. 1547).

Rohrer, D. (2009). The effects of spacing and mixing practice problems. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 40, 4-17

Vash, C. L. (1989). “The spacing effect: A case study in the failure to apply the results of psychological research”. American Psychologist, 44, 1547 (a comment on Dempster’s article?)

By the way, I am not trying to defend this publication or the quote. I just want to figure out if people believe this is true. If yes, why policy makers do not formally incorporate spaced repetition in education systems.

UPDATE 2: I really appreciate your interest in answering my question. I think there are still some unclear points that I want to mention here:

Please read the article in my question. Then you'll see the difference between "active recall" in spaced repetition and being exposed to concepts by reading books or attending lectures in our education system. Here are a couple of quotes:

active recall is a far superior method of learning than simply passively being exposed to information. ... There are many studies to the effect that active recall is best. Here’s one recent study, “Retrieval Practice Produces More Learning than Elaborative Studying with Concept Mapping”, Karpicke 2011 (covered in Science Daily and the NYT) ... “Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits”. New York Times.

While "spiral learning" is basically the foundation of spacing, in addition spacing heavily relies on active recall. Furthermore, spacing takes advantage of chunking in designing flash cards.

Moreover, there are well-defined spacing algorithms, designed by famous psychologists like Dr. Leitner, that significantly improve the efficiency of learning. Please look at studies by Professor David Shanks and Dr. Rosalind Potts.

Finally, in response to those who think spacing only improves memorizing, please read about the results of Professor Bjork's many years of experiments, specifically "Kornell, N., Castel, A. D., Eich, T. S., & Bjork, R. A. (2010). “Spacing as the friend of both memory and induction in younger and older adults”. Psychology and Aging, 25, 498-503."

Now, do you believe schools should leave students on their own to discover efficient ways of learning, or do you believe it's better to incorporate these well-studied methodologies into the education system? As a student, I pay my school to provide me with motivation, pathways, and efficient ways of learning, rather than merely providing me with a competitive environment to prove myself for a better job in the future.

Let me clarify this: I love education, research, and even just being at school. However, I believe in considering all improvements that technology has provided for us in different aspects of our lives, and I believe our education system is too old. I believe we can apply well-studied theories of learning, knowledge, neuroscience, and psychology to our education system, through the use of technology, and really improve our education system. I am trying my best to play my small role in this regard. My main purpose of asking this question in this forum is to brainstorm with you to collaboratively and learn how to improve our education system.

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat at this link. To continue the discussion, please go there, as further comments that are part of the discussion are subject to deletion. (I can't move new comments to chat.)
    – ff524
    May 24, 2016 at 1:23
  • 8
    This is a question and answer site, not a forum for brainstorming improvements to the education system. Given your edits to this post, I'm afraid you may have the wrong idea of what this site is about. (See the help center for details.)
    – ff524
    May 24, 2016 at 1:24
  • 5
    Also, asking "Please read the article in my question. " indicates that your question is not self-contained, which shouldn't be the case on SE.
    – BartoszKP
    May 24, 2016 at 14:04

7 Answers 7


In tertiary education, it is the responsibility of the students to pick appropriate learning methods. It is simply not the task of a university to incorporate spaced repetition or any other learning technique, because revising and repetition is something that students have to do on their own. Bluntly put, if students "exhibit [an] illusion", that's something students must fix, not the university.

What could be done at universities is inform students about techniques such as spaced repetition (and I am not convinced this isn't already happening one way or another).

As you say, some universities pay attention to assessments of education quality. Certainly, such assessments are not looked at for their own good, but because some other decisions are based upon them. For instance, funding for a university might be influenced by results from an assessment, but if the respective funder does not take into account retention of learning, there is no motivation to try and influence this aspect. Likewise, some kinds of assessments may be paid attention to by marketing and PR departments of a university, while they are of little to no interest to the actual teaching staff.

Then, if an aspect is not covered by any assessment the institution considers relevant, the decision will be made based upon what the teaching staff considers most beneficial (usually in an uncontrolled process, by each teaching staff member individually). And this can well mean to give students some more responsibility in order to help them evolve into autonomous professionals.

Now, if you ask why external assessments do not take into account retention a lot, that is quite a different question, and its answer has to do with a mixture of ignorance and convenience:

  • Ignorance because the people who set goals for such assessments know little about the individual subject areas, and also design the assessments in a subject-agnostic way, as the (possibly unrealistic?) expectation is to also make very different subjects comparable. Depending on the assessment, it may also be a design goal to make the assessment results comprehensible without knowing anything about the subject.
  • Convenience because "We do not know." or "We will see in X years." are too impractical answers, even though they might be accurate. The assessments are probably designed with the idea that once the assessment is over, there is a final and definitive result about the current state/quality of the university. This in turn favours a disregard of aspects that need to be measured over prolonged periods of time, such as retention long after an exam.
  • 6
    "it is the responsibility of the students to pick appropriate learning methods" I disagree. How are students supposed to do that when the scientific understanding of learning is changing so quickly? May 23, 2016 at 23:08
  • @AnonymousPhysicist: First, I am not advocating keeping stidents in the dark about the scientific understanding of learning. There may well be occasional information events on such topics, it is just their application that students are responsible for, once they know how to. Second, "appropriate learning methods" does not mean a maximum of efficiency based upon the latest scientific findings. It means learning sufficiently well to keep up with the requirements of one's studies, which are preferrably modeled in such a way so as to be comparable in terms of learning demands to the students' ... May 24, 2016 at 7:47
  • ... future life as professionals in the subject. A considerable focus of university education lies not so much on acquiring a maximum absolute amount of knowledge, but on getting trained to work and expand one's skills in the general subject area (and possibly beyond) autonomously. This mirrors the students' future work when they will have to familiarize themselves with new approaches and topics, and no-one will be around to inform them about the latest scientific understanding of how learning works. Lastly, formalized learning methods work well on average, but a given individual might ... May 24, 2016 at 8:01
  • 1
    ... well find a method that works better for them. University students are expected to be both capable and diligent enough to get the information on learning that they need and to find out what works best for them. May 24, 2016 at 8:04

In higher education, if there is information to be memorized, students are generally expected to do that themselves, in their own time and their own way. This is unlike primary education, for example, where teachers may use class time to help students memorize things.

So spaced repetition "is not formally applied to higher education" because generally, in higher education students are responsible for learning the concepts presented in class on their own, outside of class. I'm not aware of any technique for memorization that is "formally applied to higher education."

Most universities do offer students some advice on how to study more effectively, and this advice often includes information on spaced repetition (though it may not use that exact terminology.) See e.g. this UW page or this NYU page.

  • 5
    @user2521204 I said that class time is devoted to memorization in primary education, but not tertiary. I didn't say that spaced repetition is used in primary education (though it may be.)
    – ff524
    May 22, 2016 at 11:31
  • 11
    @user2521204 tell the students then, not the professors May 22, 2016 at 14:41
  • 9
    @PyRulez: we expect students to apply these study techniques independently, outside class time, and repetition of material in lectures would almost certainly be an inefficient use of time. But instructors have a lot of influence over students’ study habits — both directly, by giving explicit advice, and indirectly, through (e.g.) the design and structure of homework assignments. So we (lecturers) certainly should also be aware of relevant work on these sort of techniques.
    – PLL
    May 22, 2016 at 15:30
  • 4
    It's part of the spiral math curriculum used in our primary schools in Lexington, MA. Most parents I know wish it would go away; another example of education theory that fails on contact with reality.
    – bmargulies
    May 22, 2016 at 18:27
  • 3
    @Daniel For all I hear about those on the Internet and newsletters from my school's Center for Learning (or whatever it's called), I don't actually see them used in my engineering school. Maybe your institution is different :)
    – ff524
    May 23, 2016 at 8:15

Spaced repetition is indirectly present in higher ed. We have all heard the humorous phrase that an ms is "more of the same" and a PhD is "pile higher and deeper". This implies that there is indeed some repetition from undergrad to grad school.

However, it's not enough to just memorize the content. Students are expected to go "deeper" in their expertise and to critically apply this knowledge through extending through conducting research.

At each level of education familiar themes are explored again at a more sophisticated level. By default old simpler concepts are reviewed before adding the next layer of knowledge. This reviewing of familiar material is an opportunity for spaced repetition and perhaps an example of constructivism

  • 3
    Normally teaching strategies are left to the discretion of the individual teacher in higher ed. As such I doubt there would ever be institutional support for this. However individual support is possible. May 22, 2016 at 13:01
  • 2
    I believe in your answer. However, I don't understand why. When majority of colleges pay a lot of attention to assessment, leveraging standard tests and compete with each other to improve test scores, why don't they invest in retention of learning? Students get so stressful before exams and exams are getting more and more difficult, but when you take the same exam from the same students a few months later, you observe very poor results. If students are going to forget, based on the forgetting curve, why should they be so stressful for the exams? May 22, 2016 at 13:11
  • 3
    @user2521204, it is not at all clear to me that your premise that "a majority of colleges pay a lot of attention to assessment, leveraging test scores, and compete with each other to improve test scores..." in the U.S., for example. May 22, 2016 at 17:35
  • 7
    @user2521204, I'm sorry, I did read carefully what you wrote, and disagree with the premise. It is true that ETS wants to sell products, etc., but that does not at all mean that I, as faculty on grad admissions committee, value those numbers, nor am "leveraging" them. Multiple choice tests are pretty idiotic, and as far as I can see those things have essentially nothing to do with education in the first place. The inappropriateness of multiple-choice tests is "not about" higher education, but about a certain commodification of it... May 22, 2016 at 17:59
  • 1
    @user2521204, they would not exist in the first place without ETS ("Educational Testing Service", in New Jersey), and would not continue to exist without the promotion by them. These exams are a bad pseudo-solution to "a problem" (which is not actually a "problem" at all, but is the main issue). I read personal statements, letters of recommendation, ... May 22, 2016 at 18:50

Why doesn't academia incorporate spaced repetition in higher education?


  1. the majority of educators have not given much thought to how the brain works in learning, or about best practices in teaching;

  2. few educational institutions have much in the way of quality control or improvement mechanisms in place; and

  3. few educators take the initiative on their own to observe each other's classes or discuss teaching practices with colleagues.

I once worked in a small, private-pay school in Latin America that taught English as a second language, in one-hour long classes, of 3 to 12 students per class. The school was part of a franchise. The director and the teachers were highly motivated to use teaching methods that work, because the school's continued existence, and thus the teachers' continued employment, were on the line. We were given articles about best practices in language teaching, and encouraged to read and discuss them; and observation of each other's classes, and feedback from colleagues, were built into the job.

These pedagogical improvement practices were effective, on a short time scale. I have not seen them in use in any other educational institutions I, or members of my family, have been involved in. What I've seen, for the most part, is a lot of hamsters happily spinning on their own exercise wheels.


Whether students in tertiary education continue in academia or move out of it, if they want a successful career then (self)-education will continue for the rest of their working lives.

Working in the engineering industry, I am now using theoretical concepts on a daily basis that were too "recent and cutting-edge" to even be formally taught at university level when I graduated - indeed, some of them had not even been discovered.

Since educational theorists seem to invent a revolutionary new version of "educational best practice" every few years, it seems to me that the best chance for life-long students is to figure out something that works for them personally, rather than blindly following the path of the latest pedagogical fashion. After all, the most basic "learning experience" is discovering how to think for yourself.

Outside of the classroom there is usually no time for ideas like "spaced repetition". Either you get your head around new information faster than your competitors (whether they are inside and outside of your own workplace), or you watch their career progress overtake your own.

  • 8
    I somehow dislike the last paragraph. It may seem to work, but then that's not because someone was "getting their head around new information fast" instead of a proper technique, it's that they happened to stumble upon a technique that happens to work for them (and possibly for others). It's like saying "There is no time for looking at a map, we need to keep driving to reach our destination early." Of course, one might arrive at the intended destination like this. May 22, 2016 at 18:17
  • 3
    I would echo @O.R.Mapper's comment... and reiterate: over several decades, even though I have a better memory than some, I've found that I need frequent "refreshing" of recollection of many, many technical points. For that matter, it seems now, as always, that I need to hear a very-new thing perhaps five times before it really gets inside my head. And then review-and-refresh subsequently. May 22, 2016 at 19:00
  • 1
    These are exactly the reasons that it seems SRS should be a good tool to teach in schools, and why SRS is so popular outside academia. Once a student has been introduced to SRS, and realizes how easy it actually is to move large collections of facts into long-term memory with nothing but a smartphone and a 10-minute daily habit, that's a skill that he or she can choose to take with them into any industry. SRS is also a highly measurable and goal-directed way to achieve learning targets, which makes it very appealling from a practical (or "S-M-A-R-T", if you like) standpoint.
    – SigmaX
    Aug 15, 2017 at 19:52

There's a guy named btilly (https://stackoverflow.com/users/585411/btilly) who used SR to teach linear algebra and it went very well.

He wrote a short post about it (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=818367) and a longer one too (http://bentilly.blogspot.co.il/2009/09/teaching-linear-algebra.html).

A guy named wsprague wrote this in reply (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=819181):

The question of why is there so much crappy education is interesting. I think part of the answer is that society is well-served by the failings of the educational system in that widespread educational crappiness helps support the class system. I think it would be fairly straightforward to turn 90% of the population into well educated upper middle class types, using techniques like btilly describes...

... But if we did that, who would drink Coors and drive forklift for Walmart and not complain about it?

So I think that a huge function of the educational system is to educate a large part of the population badly. I think that the teacher training system serves this is as well, by selecting for mediocre teachers and then making them more mediocre via training. Additionally, in the schools themselves a lot of effort is made to classify young people into dumb and smart categories, usually unfairly (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmalion_effect), and this classification stamps them for the rest of their lives and creates a population of hopeless lower class workers.

If there are SOME good teachers in the system like btilly, then SOME kids go on to get out of their class, which is perfect in that (1) we need to claim that it is possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and (2) we need to recruit SOME kids to grow up to fill management positions, but not too many that they all can't find careers. Historically, underemployed educated people are the people who become union leaders.

The beauty of it is that the people who fail think it is their fault!

(Sorry to rant about the educational / class system in general, rather than the topic of how to teach advanced math, but I couldn't stop myself.)

Call me paranoid, but there you go.


In support of other answers (and a comment above by bmargulies): One argument is that using class time for repetition takes away time from thinking about new, and likely harder, skills. Apparently it's common for "spiral" approaches like this to generate resistance from parents. For example:

Some parents, like Ms. Demond, questioned the efficacy of the spiral structure and sequence of the Everyday Math curriculum:

"But I know, in her grades, we did have, like, more time, for everything, as far as addition, subtraction. We might have two weeks, or... I just know we spent more time than a week... Then they cram different things each day. Because each different day they might come home with something different. We had a set time to learn how to tell time, and… what’s the other stuff? ... We might have spent two weeks on that. Two weeks spending on something, that’s different. Other than just a week. Because, you’re not gonna learn how to do the rows and maybe money, in just a week, and then move on down to something else. They’re not gonna learn it. Can’t learn like that." (SCS, 2nd grade)

Schnee, Emily, and Enakshi Bose. "Parents Don't Do Nothing: Reconceptualizing Parental Null Actions as Agency." School Community Journal 20.2 (2010): 91. (Link)

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .