Faculty at Furman often tailor their class schedules to better suit their pedagogical goals. In my department for instance, “upper level” courses are frequently taught 2-3 afternoons a week for extended periods. I elect to do this for 2 reasons—first, I find 50 minute classes counterproductive to in-depth discussion and analysis of topics, and secondly, I prefer my students to have greater than 24 hours between class meetings. I find that longer inter-class-intervals promote more thoughtful reflection of course material and better performance on class assignments. My decision is supported by substantial evidence that increased spacing between meetings might facilitate learning and memory of new material.
There is a rich literature investigating the parameters for optimal
learning and retention. As early as the 1940s it was demonstrated that
with equal amounts of practice, spaced learning was more efficient than
massed learning (Tsao, 1948). Extensive research
on the spacing effect has shown it to be extremely reliable, robust,
and ubiquitous. Indeed, the fact that repetitions separated by time
and/or other events are remembered better than massed repetitions is
perhaps “one of the most dependable phenomena in experimental
psychology” (Dempster, 1987). Moreover, the spacing effect has
been observed in virtually all standard experimental learning paradigms
and in a variety of species.
Although many of the laboratory conditions studied with respect to this phenomenon are rather different from those associated with classroom learning (for instance, exposure to material in spaced learning experiments generally varies from about a minute to 7 days, and there are very few studies that systematically compare differences in retention after longer periods) in general, longer intervals between exposures are counterintuitively associated with better encoding and increased retention. One explanation for this may be that with frequent and repetitive training the processes that underlie consolidation of information from a particular trial are interfered with by the processing from previous and subsequent trials (i.e.: proactive and retroactive interference).
More recently, the psychological research has been complimented by biological investigations designed to elucidate neural mechanisms of the spacing effect. Briefly, long term declarative/factual memories require protein synthesis and the cellular changes mediating this process take time. In a well-established laboratory model of memory consolidation, called Long Term Potentiation, a cascade of neurochemical changes following activation of “memory circuits” eventually results in gene activation and translation of proteins. These proteins provide for the structural changes associated with long term memories.
Longer periods between stimuli presentations result in more substantial structural modifications, and presumably this is the reason for better recall. Drugs that interfere with protein synthesis also block memory consolidation, and those that enhance protein synthesis augment learning. Genoux et al (2002) showed that massed presentation of stimuli prevents gene expression and suggest that spaced learning may result in superior performance because cellular interference is minimized. In a recent review (Zhou and Poo, 2004) further propose that spaced patterns of stimulation overcome the constituent blockade on long term memory formation that is mediated by ongoing physiological activity.
For these reasons, I propose that we adopt a calendar and schedule that can more readily accommodate fewer and longer class meetings. As it is, those of us electing to satisfy course hours in ways other than 50 minute daily meetings must teach in the afternoons (so as not to preclude students from taking up to 3 classes meeting at “regular” times) and this often conflicts with other student commitments (labs, athletics, music, etc.). I realize that different types of course material might be best suited to different schedules—for instance, math, language or other courses that involve a lot of “doing” (and coincidentally have a different neural substrate) are probably better served by more frequent and briefer meetings. Thus, a flexible calendar such as that described in proposal #5, allowing for more adaptable offerings, might best serve the learning community at Furman.
Dempster, FN. Time and the production of classroom learning: Discerning implications from basic research. Educational Psychologist, 1987, 22:1-21.
Genoux, D, Haditsch, U, Knobloch, M, Michalon, A, Storm, D, Mansuy, IM. Protein phosphatase 1 is a molecular constraint on learning and memory. Nature, 2002, 41:970-975.
Spear, NE. The Processing of Memories: Forgetting and Retention Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, 1978.
Tsao, JC. Studies in spaced and massed learning: I. Time period and amount of practice. Quarterly Jounral of Experimental Psychology, 1948, 1:29-36.
Zhou, Q, Poo, M-M. Reversal and consolidation of
activity-induced synaptic modification. Trends in Neurosciences, 2004,