Spacing, Feedback, and Retrieval Boosts Learning Online

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Remote Teaching


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Can teachers use what they know about cognitive science and successfully apply it to remote teaching?

In a new paper published in June 2020, academics test spacing, feedback, testing, and multimodality and how they can be applied into an applied ICT context. Something worth considering during COVID-19 and remote learning…

Academics from Swiss Distance University Institute and the University of Bonn, Germany, publish some important research as ICT “becomes more prevalent in education, particularly its efficacy in general (see Education Endowment Foundation: The evidence) and that of specific learning applications, in particular, has not been fully established yet.”

Hypothesis and findings

The key question asked in the research (n = 79) was: “Can established learning principles be used to optimize learning of vocabulary with a web application?”

The hypotheses were that learning improves when:

  1. Time spent learning is spaced vs. massed
  2. Corrective feedback is given vs. no feedback
  3. More testing/retrieval trials are presented, and
  4. Stimuli were presented multimodally vs. modally

Their findings indicate that “principles derived from basic memory research can successfully be implemented in web applications” to help improve the acquisition of new vocabulary. The paper provides a comprehensive overview, a detailed explanation of the research methods used. Here are the headlines:

  • A meta-meta-analysis (this is a meta-analysis of past-published meta-analyses!) in 2011 found a small to moderate effect in the use of ICT in the classroom to support teaching and learning (Tamim et al., 2011).
  • The efficacy of interactive learning applications and mobile devices to improve learning in the classrooms is promising – and unclear (Sung et al, 2016).
  • It is clear that more research is needed to investigate how ICT can be successfully applied in education. This new research aimed to scrutinise underlying mechanisms of ICT successes and take the perspective of memory processes.


Spacing refers to splitting up the learning into short sessions and distributing them over time (Carpenter et al., 2012; Kornell et al., 2010).


The researchers write from a cognitive perspective. “Corrective feedback leads to a ‘prediction-error’ signal in the brain” (Wilkinson et al, 2014). It is also helpful for teachers to know that there are many forms of feedback…

Testing (or Retrieval Practice)

The testing effect is when students have to reproduce or answer questions about the study material. Memory performs better when learning and test situations are similar rather than different(morris et al. 1977)  and are more likely to recall information when practised rather than restudied.


Multi-modal learning is how we perceive the world and learn every day, without deliberate effort. Many teachers will be familiar with dual coding and the highly contentious, learning styles.

The researchers write, “Audio presentations recruit larger regions of the brain – namely the ones processing auditory and the ones processing visual information…  whilst we have extensive data on these four principles, few studies have evaluated how these principles interact” (Weinstein et al, 2018).

Spacing, Feedback, and Testing Boost Vocabulary Learning

Credit: Angelo Belardia , Salome Pedretta , Nicolas Rothena , Thomas P. Rebera


The research found that “varying the presence/absence or parameters of each of the [above] principles independently, we find that Spacing and the presence of corrective Feedback & Testing together significantly boost learning by 29%.”

The researchers can “see that it is possible to use established learning principles in the context of online learning applications.” However, “this might not work in all cases” and conclude with a very important point: “Apps, like any component of ICT, remain tools – they are not goals themselves… [but] turning to basic memory research to inform app-design can boost learning quite significantly”

The researchers conclude that “development of ICT applications with knowledge from basic memory” can improve their efficiency.

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