Putting musical knowledge into long-term memory through spaced learning

May 11, 2011

Pedagogy

Spaced learning” is a teaching strategy based on recent research about how the brain creates long-term memory at the cellular level.

I first read about spaced learning two days ago, and experimented with it yesterday in my year 8 Music class. The result was one of the most successful and engaging theory lessons we’ve had for a long time, and the students wanted more of it.

It can be applied to any subject, and one of the best things about it is that you don’t need anything that you don’t already have. You don’t need to buy new tech hardware, download software, create new resources, or make even so much as one new handout, although you can if you really want to.

Spaced learning works like this: you present the lesson content to your class three times. Between each presentation, there is a ten-minute gap, during which the students do some kind of activity which is totally unrelated to the lesson content they’ve just seen.

That ten-minute gap is key, because it does two things. Firstly, it “rests” the neural pathways in the brain which have just begun to form after having been exposed to new knowledge. Secondly, it creates a mechanism whereby that new knowledge is repeated, which demonstrates to the brain that this new content is important (another key) and therefore strengthens the neural pathways.

This process of resting and strengthening happens twice in a lesson, creating long-term memory. It works rather like building a muscle through weight-lifting in the gym, except the brain doesn’t hurt as much the next day.

I did a lesson yesterday on grunge music, where I used a PowerPoint presentation that I already had. Here’s what we did:

  • First Presentation:
    • I showed the PowerPoint, reading the slides out loud (which I will always do to accommodate both aural and visual learners), while my class sat quietly and just absorbed the information.
    • Tip: it’s important at this first stage that students don’t copy anything or ask questions, but just tune into the content and actively listen.
  • Gap One:
    • The idea for a gap activity is to get students to do something hands-on or that requires physical coordination and/or use of fine-motor skills. In music, that’s easy. I just sent them away to do prac for 10 minutes. They’re a self-directed group so I didn’t have to do much in the way of setting tasks, but some alternatives here might be to set one or more of the following:
      • practising scales on the keyboard, chords on the guitar, or rhythms on the drum kit;
      • singing/playing songs;
      • rehearsing for an upcoming performance;
      • ten minutes of instrumental practice.
  • Second Presentation:
    • This time the class needed to start recalling information and being a bit more interactive. I used the same PowerPoint presentation as before, but with some of the main words and concepts blanked out (I sneaked that in while they were doing prac). We read the presentation again, except now they had to put their hands up and recall the concepts I’d hidden.
    • Tip: the temptation here is for individual students to call out, so you need to remind then not to do so before you start.
  • Gap Two:
    • Another 10-minute prac session. Other alternatives for different subject areas might be games like silent-ball, simon-says, or making something out of plasticine.
  • Third Presentation:
    • Before showing the PowerPoint for the third time, I had the students do a think-pair-share activity, spending five minutes writing down as many points as they could remember from the presentation. I had “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana playing while they were writing. Then random pairs shared points with the rest of the class group.
    • We read through the presentation again, this time with whole blocks of text blanked out, which they had to fill in verbally as before.
    • Tip: the concepts they most need to remember are the ones you blank out and make them recall.
  • Homework:
    • Students have to write a paragraph, in full sentences, about grunge music.

This lesson has laid some groundwork, from which I can further develop their knowledge of grunge music by analysing repertoire, researching certain artists, and learning to play riffs and songs.

Spaced learning is a great tool for establishing important concepts at the introductory phase of a unit, and for preparing for assessment in the revision phase. I find that it’s also a wonderful tool for lesson planning, because it forces me to focus the content into a very small, concentrated bundle. It also heightens student concentration and engagement during the lesson itself.

For further information, I really recommend visiting the website of Monkseaton High School, where I first found out about spaced learning. They have a lot of resources, and even a series of short videos showing the strategy in action.

References:

  1. Gittner, A. (2010) Science GCSE in 60 Minutes!
  2. Monkseaton High School: “What is Spaced Learning?”
  3. Wikipedia (2010). “Spaced Learning”. Retrieved May 10, 2010.

Creative Commons License
Putting musical knowledge into long-term memory through spaced learning by Gabrielle Deschamps is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available by contacting me.

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About Gabrielle Deschamps

I'm a secondary music teacher, interested in music technology and its integration into classroom pedagogy.

View all posts by Gabrielle Deschamps

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