Spacing rituals

Implementing distributed retrieval study

Hey ๐Ÿ‘‹

Happiest Thursday. This week, weโ€™re continuing our theme of barriers to effective student study, co-authored with brilliant memory psychologist William Wadsworth, by taking a look a spacing ritualsโ€ฆ

Big idea ๐Ÿ‰

Many students recognise the power of spacing their study. However, few manage to make it work consistently in practice. Wadsworth suggests that spacing rituals can help students overcome this knowing-doing gap.

Our brains are selective when it comes to building knowledge. We typically forget most academic content we encounter unless we take proactive steps to remember it. One of the most effective approaches entails retrieving ideas multiple times over increasingly distributed time internals (aka spaced retrieval practice).

It's easy to appreciate the value of spacing. But implementing it effectively isnโ€™t always so straightforward. Drawing up a plan for spaced study over multiple subjects and topics with different deadlines can quickly become overly complex and too inflexible to be of any practical use.

Even with fully developed, adult-level self-regulation and total control over our schedule, a plan of this nature would be difficult to follow for more than a few days. After which, we'd probably have to re-write, or abandon it completely. Given this, itโ€™s unsurprising that more than 70% of students donโ€™t consistently space their study ๐Ÿ˜ฑ

Which is why adopting a set of simple 'ritual rules' to govern spacing can end up being a more productive approach. For example, a student preparing for exams might:

  1. Start every study session (regardless of length) with a retrieval exercise (eg. flash card, mind map) of the last thing studied.

  2. Plan a weekly 'just review, nothing new' day where the focus is solely on retrieving ideas studied in the last week or so.

  3. In the final days before an exam (or other performance), set aside time for a final round of retrieval.

The power of such a set of ritual rules lies partly in their flexibility. They enable study to continue even in the face of (inevitably) changing circumstances, and so helps students spend less time administrating and more time learning.

๐ŸŽ“ For more, check out this review of the science and implementation challenges of spacing and this free resource pack on spacing rituals from Exam Study Expert.


  • Students don't always implement spacing despite appreciating that it can be a powerful study strategy.

  • This is partly because spacing can easily become overly complex and unwieldy to manage.

  • Students can avoid this risk by employing a set of simple 'ritual rules' to govern their spacing behaviour.

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Go get the rest of today.

Peps ๐Ÿ‘Š

PS. If youโ€™re at the CST Directors of Improvement conference next week and have a mo, come find me and say hiโ€ฆ Iโ€™d love to hear about your work.