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Spacing effect

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Title: Spacing effect  
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Subject: Spaced repetition, Memrise, Cognative Biases, Cognitive Biases, List of cognitive biases
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Spacing effect

In the field of psychology, the spacing effect is the phenomenon whereby animals (including humans) more easily remember or learn items when they are studied a few times spaced over a long time span ("spaced presentation") rather than repeatedly studied in a short span of time ("massed presentation"). Practically, this effect suggests that "cramming" (intense, last-minute studying) the night before an exam is not likely to be as effective as studying at intervals in a longer time frame. Important to note, however, is that the benefit of spaced presentations does not appear at short retention intervals, in which massed presentations tend to lead to better memory performance.

The phenomenon was first identified by Hermann Ebbinghaus, and his detailed study of it was published in the 1885 book Über das Gedächtnis. Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie (Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology). This robust finding has been supported by studies of many explicit memory tasks such as free recall, recognition, cued-recall, and frequency estimation (for reviews see Crowder 1976; Greene, 1989).

Researchers have offered several possible explanations of the spacing effect, and much research has been conducted that supports its impact on recall. In spite of these findings, the robustness of this phenomenon and its resistance to experimental manipulation have made empirical testing of its parameters difficult.


  • Causes for spacing effect 1
    • Semantic priming 1.1
    • Encoding variability 1.2
    • Study-phase retrieval theory 1.3
    • Deficient processing 1.4
    • Retrieval effort and strategy shift hypotheses 1.5
  • Practical applications and long-term retention 2
    • Advertising 2.1
    • Learning and pedagogy 2.2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External references 5

Causes for spacing effect

Decades of research on memory and recall have produced many different theories and findings on the spacing effect. In a study conducted by Cepeda et al. (2006) participants who used spaced practice on memory tasks outperformed those using massed practice in 259 out of 271 cases.

As different studies support different aspects of this effect, some now believe that an appropriate account should be multifactorial, and at present, different mechanisms are invoked to account for the spacing effect in free recall and in explicit cued-memory tasks.

Not much attention has been given to the study of the spacing effect in long-term retention tests. Shaughnessy (1977)[1] found that the spacing effect is not robust for twice-presented items after a 24-hour delay in testing. The spacing effect is present, however, for items presented four or six times and tested after a 24-hour delay. This seems like a strange result and Shaughnessy interprets it as evidence for a multifactorial account of the spacing effect.

Semantic priming

Research has shown reliable spacing effects in cued-memory tasks under incidental learning conditions, where semantic analysis is encouraged through orienting tasks (Challis, 1993; Russo & Mammaralla, 2002). Challis found a spacing effect for target words using a frequency estimation task after words were incidentally analyzed semantically. However, no spacing effect was found when the target words were shallowly encoded using a graphemic study task. This suggests that semantic priming underlies the spacing effect in cued-memory tasks. When items are presented in a massed fashion, the first occurrence of the target semantically primes the mental representation of that target, such that when the second occurrence appears directly after the first, there is a reduction in its semantic processing. Semantic priming wears off after a period of time (Kirsner, Smith, Lockhart, & King, 1984), which is why there is less semantic priming of the second occurrence of a spaced item. Thus on the semantic priming account, the second presentation is more strongly primed and receives less semantic processing when the repetitions are massed compared to when presentations are spaced over short lags (Challis, 1993). This semantic priming mechanism provides spaced words with more extensive processing than massed words, producing the spacing effect.

From this explanation of the spacing effect, it follows that this effect should not occur with nonsense stimuli that do not have a semantic representation in memory. A number of studies have demonstrated that the semantically based repetition priming approach cannot explain spacing effects in recognition memory for stimuli such as unfamiliar faces, and non-words that are not amenable to semantic analysis (Russo, Parkin, Taylor, & Wilks, 1998; Russo et al., 2002; Mammarella, Russo, & Avons, 2005). Cornoldi and Longoni (1977) have even found a significant spacing effect in a forced-choice recognition memory task when nonsense shapes were used as target stimuli. Russo et al. (1998) proposed that with cued memory of unfamiliar stimuli, a short-term perceptually-based repetition priming mechanism supports the spacing effect. When unfamiliar stimuli are used as targets in a cued-memory task, memory relies on the retrieval of structural-perceptual information about the targets. When the items are presented in a massed fashion, the first occurrence primes its second occurrence, leading to reduced perceptual processing of the second presentation. Short-term repetition-priming effects for nonwords are reduced when the lag between prime and target trials is reduced from zero to six (McKone, 1995), thus it follows that more extensive perceptual processing is given to the second occurrence of spaced items relative to that given to massed items. Hence, nonsense items with massed presentation receive less extensive perceptual processing than spaced items; thus, the retrieval of those items is impaired in cued-memory tasks.

Congruent with this view, Russo et al. (2002) demonstrated that changing the font in which repeated presentations of nonwords were presented reduced the short-term perceptual priming of those stimuli, especially for massed items. Upon a recognition memory test, there was no spacing effect found for the nonwords presented in different fonts during study. These results support the hypothesis that short-term perceptual priming is the mechanism that supports the spacing effects in cued-memory tasks when unfamiliar stimuli are used as targets. Furthermore, when the font was changed between repeated presentations of words in the study phase, there was no reduction of the spacing effect. This resistance to the font manipulation is expected with this two-factor account, as semantic processing of words at study determines performance on a later memory test, and the font manipulation is irrelevant to this form of processing.

Mammarella, Russo, & Avons (2002) also demonstrated that changing the orientation of faces between repeated presentations served to eliminate the spacing effect. Unfamiliar faces do not have stored representations in memory, thus the spacing effect for these stimuli would be a result of perceptual priming. Changing orientation served to alter the physical appearance of the stimuli, thus reducing the perceptual priming at the second occurrence of the face when presented in a massed fashion. This led to equal memory for faces presented in massed and spaced fashions, hence eliminating the spacing effect.

Encoding variability

According to the encoding variability view, spaced repetition typically entails some variability in presentation contexts, resulting in a greater number of retrieval cues. Contrastingly, massed repetitions have limited presentations and therefore fewer retrieval cues.

To test the Encoding Variability theory, Bird, Nicholson and Ringer (1978) [2] presented subjects with word lists that either had massed or spaced repetitions. Subjects were asked to perform various "orienting tasks," tasks which require the subject to make a simple judgment about the list item (i.e. pleasant or unpleasant, active or passive). Subjects either performed the same task for each occurrence of a word or a different task for each occurrence. If the Encoding Variability theory were true, then the case of different orienting tasks ought to provide variable encoding, even for massed repetitions, resulting in a higher rate of recall for massed repetitions than would be expected. The results showed no such effect, providing strong evidence against the importance of Encoding Variability.

Study-phase retrieval theory

A theory that has gained a lot of traction recently is the study-phase retrieval theory. This theory assumes that the first presentation is retrieved at the time of the second. This leads to an elaboration of the first memory trace. Massed presentations do not yield advantages because the first trace is active at the time of the second, so it is not retrieved or elaborated upon. Greene (1989) proposed a two-factor account of the spacing effect, combining deficient processing and study-phase retrieval accounts. Spacing effects in free recall are accounted for by the study-phase retrieval account. Under the assumption that free recall is sensitive to contextual associations, spaced items are at an advantage over massed items by the additional encoding of contextual information. Thus, the second occurrence of an item in a list reminds the observer of the previous occurrence of that same item and of its previous contextual features. Different contextual information is encoded with each presentation, whereas for massed items, the difference in context is relatively small. More retrieval cues, then, are encoded with spaced learning, which in turn leads to improved recall.

Deficient processing

According to the deficient processing view, massed repetitions lead to deficient processing of the second presentation—that we simply do not pay much attention to the later presentations (Hintzman et al., 1973). Greene (1989) proposed this to be the case in cued-memory tasks (e.g. recognition memory, frequency estimation tasks), which rely more on item information and less on contextual information. The increased voluntary rehearsal of spaced items makes this deficient processing noticeable. Findings that the spacing effect is not found when items are studied through incidental learning support this account.

Retrieval effort and strategy shift hypotheses

According to research conducted by Pyc and Rawson (2009) successful but effortful retrieval tasks during practice enhance memory in an account known as the retrieval effort hypothesis. Spacing out the learning and relearning of items leads to a more effortful retrieval which provides for deeper processing of the item. Massed practice creates an environment in which the retrieval typically requires less effort due to the less time in between the initial learning and the recall.

Recent research findings by Rawson and Dunlosky (2012) do not support this hypothesis of memory enhancement, however. Consistent with the strategy shift hypothesis, this study suggests that the act of failing to retrieve an item from memory actually serves to greater enhance memory. Retrieval failure provides learners with the opportunity to evaluate their encoding strategies for effectiveness and adapt their methods accordingly.

Practical applications and long-term retention


The spacing effect and its underlying mechanisms have important applications to the world of advertising. For instance, the spacing effect dictates that it is not an effective advertising strategy to present the same commercial back-to-back (massed repetition). If encoding variability is an important mechanism of the spacing effect, then a good advertising strategy might include a distributed presentation of different versions of the same ad.

Appleton-Knapp, Bjork and Wickens (2005)[3] examined the effects of spacing on advertising.

They found that spaced repetitions of advertisements are more affected by study-phase retrieval processes than encoding variability. They also found that at long intervals, varying the presentation of a given ad is not effective in producing higher recall rates among subjects (as predicted by variable encoding). Despite this finding, recognition is not affected by variations in an ad at long intervals.

Learning and pedagogy

The long-term effects of spacing have also been assessed in the context of learning a foreign language. Bahrick et al. (1993)[4] examined the retention of newly learned foreign vocabulary words as a function of relearning sessions and intersession spacing over a 9-year period.

Both the amount of relearning session and the number of days in between each session have a major impact on retention (the repetition effect and the spacing effect), yet the two variables do not interact with each other.

For all three difficulty rankings of the foreign words, recall was highest for the 56-day interval as opposed to a 28-day or a 14-day interval. Additionally, 13 sessions spaced 56 days apart yielded comparable retention to 26 sessions with a 14-day interval.

These findings have implications for educational practices. Curricula rarely provide opportunities for periodic retrieval of previously acquired knowledge. Without spaced repetitions, students are more likely to forget foreign language vocabulary.

See also


  1. ^ Long-Term Retention and the Spacing Effect in Free-Recall and Frequency Judgments John J. Shaughnessy The American Journal of Psychology Vol. 90, No. 4 (Dec., 1977), pp. 587-598 Published by: University of Illinois Press Article Stable URL:
  2. ^ Resistance of the Spacing Effect to Variations in Encoding Charles P. Bird, Angus J. Nicholson and Susan Ringer The American Journal of Psychology Vol. 91, No. 4 (Dec., 1978), pp. 713-721 Published by: University of Illinois Press Article Stable URL:
  3. ^ Examining the Spacing Effect in Advertising: Encoding Variability, Retrieval Processes, and Their Interaction Sara L. Appleton‐Knapp, Robert A. Bjork and Thomas D. Wickens The Journal of Consumer Research Vol. 32, No. 2 (September 2005), pp. 266-276 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Article doi:10.1086/432236 Article Stable URL:
  4. ^ Maintenance of Foreign Language Vocabulary and the Spacing Effect Harry P. Bahrick, Lorraine E. Bahrick, Audrey S. Bahrick and Phyllis E. Bahrick Psychological Science Vol. 4, No. 5 (Sep., 1993), pp. 316-321 Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the Association for Psychological Science Article Stable URL:
  • Appleton-Knapp, S.L., Bjork, R.A., & Wickens, T.D. (2005). Examining the spacing effect in advertising: Encoding variability, retrieval processes, and their interaction. Journal of Consumer Research, 32(2), 266-276.
  • Bird, C.P. (1987). Influence of the spacing of trait information on impressions of likability. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 23(6), 481-497.
  • Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E. Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354-380. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.132.3.354
  • Cermak, L.S., Verfaellie, M., Lanzoni, S., Mather, M., & Chase, K.A. (1996). Effect of spaced repetitions on amnesia patients' recall and recognition performance. Neuropsychology, 10(2), 219-227.
  • Challis, B.H. (1993). Spacing effects on cued-memory tests depend on level of processing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 19(2), 389-396.
  • Crowder, R.G. (1976). Principles of learning and memory. Oxford, England: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Dempster, F.N. (1988). Informing classroom practice: What we know about several task characteristics and their effects on learning. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 13(3), 254-264.
  • Dempster, F.N. (1988). The spacing effect: A case study in the failure to apply the results of psychological research. American Psychologist, 43(8), 627-634.
  • Greene, R.L. (1989). Spacing effects in memory: Evidence for a two-process account. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15(3), 371-377.
  • Greene R. L. (2008). Repetition and spacing effects. In Roediger H. L. III (Ed.), Learning and memory: A comprehensive reference. Cognitive Psychology of Memory, 2, 65-78. Oxford: Elsevier.
  • Hintzman, D.L. (1974). Theoretical implications of the spacing effect. Theories in Cognitive Psychology: The Loyola Symposium. Oxford, England: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Leicht, K.L., & Overton, R. (1987). Encoding variability and spacing repetitions. American Journal of Psychology, 100(1), 61-68.
  • Mammarella, N., Avons, S.E., & Russo, R. (2004). A short-term perceptual priming account of spacing effects in explicit cued-memory tasks for unfamiliar stimuli. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 16(3), 387-402.
  • Mammarella, N., Russo, R., & Avons, S.E. (2002). Spacing effects in cued-memory tasks for unfamiliar faces and nonwords. Memory & Cognition, 30(8), 1238-1251.
  • Pyc, M. A. & Rawson, K. A. (2009). Testing retrieval efforts hypothesis: Does greater difficulty correctly recalling information lead to higher levels of memory? Journal of Memory and Language, 60, 437-447. doi: 10.1016/j.jml.2009.01.004
  • Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). Relearning Attenuates the Benefits and Costs of Spacing. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: General, doi:10.1037/a0030498
  • Russo, R., Ma, & Wilks, J. (1998). Revising current two-process accounts of spacing effects in memory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 24(1), 161-172.
  • Toppino, T.C., & Bloom, L.C. (2002). The spacing effect, free recall, and two-process theory: A closer look. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 28(3), 437-444.
  • Whitten, W.B. & Bjork, R.A. (1977). Learning from tests: Effects of spacing. Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 16, 465-478.
  • Wozniak, P.A., & Gorzelanczyk, E.J. (1994). Optimization of repetition spacing in the practice of learning. Acta Neurobiologiae Experimentalis, 54, 59-62.
  • Young, D.R., & Bellezza, F.S. (1982). Encoding variability, memory organization, and the repetition effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 8(6), 545-559. doi: 10.1037/0278-7393.8.6.545

External references

  • Ebbinghaus, Hermann (1885). Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology.
  • Gary Wolf. 2008 April 21. Want to Remember Everything You'll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm. Wired. 16.05.
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