Inquiry learning is the cornerstone of my teaching philosophy, right up there with choice theory and the practices of science. Inquiry is also a powerful teaching tool and reams of data show how effective it is in helping students come to understand the world around them. What I am still trying to come to understand is all the intricate reasons why inquiry is so great. One piece of the puzzle is the intrinsic inclusion of spaced practice within inquiry design.
Spaced practice is the alternative to massed practice. Allowing a delay between learning experiences (or review sessions) allows for a process of forgetting to occur. What is surprising to many is that forgetting is essential to understanding. The process of re-consolidation, reestablishing new understanding and connections and re-storage of the information in long term memory improves conceptual understanding. The process also promotes generalization, transfer and creativity. A recently-published paper provides some of the most recent support for the power of forgetting (Vlach 2014). Massed practice, or “cramming” for a test the night before, is obsolete and ineffective.
The problem teachers must address is how to promote spaced practice in the classroom. Teachers may know cramming doesn’t work, but we don’t have direct control over how students study. Inquiry learning requires spaced practice because of the diversity of ideas and skills that are needed for success. Teachers promote and reward creativity in an inquiry environment, so students recall past ideas and spiral to background knowledge on a regular basis. We as teachers reap the rewards of spaced practice as part of utilizing and exciting and effective learning modality.
So inquiry is great, and cramming doesn’t work. And now I have a better understanding why.
Vlach, H. A. (2014), The Spacing Effect in Children’s Generalization of Knowledge: Allowing Children Time to Forget Promotes Their Ability to Learn. Child Development Perspectives, 8: 163–168. doi: 10.1111/cdep.12079