Study: The power of ‘successive learning’

by on January 6, 2016 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: Rapid Learning Insights

Retrieval practice and spacing are two of the most powerful concepts to come out of educational research.

To briefly summarize, retrieval practice (or the testing effect) uses tests and other assessments to retrieve material from learners’ memory, thereby strengthening that memory. Spacing asks learners to periodically revisit previously learned concepts – spaced out over the course of weeks and months – to prevent forgetting.

Both techniques have numerous studies demonstrating their benefits. So what happens when you combine them? Do you get a supercharged learning experience? That’s what researchers from Kent State University wanted to find out.

The research

The study was conducted in the real world, in a college Introduction to Psychology class. The researchers divided students into four groups.

Group One was given retrieval practice tools. Group Two was instructed on how to use spacing. Group Three was assigned a program that implemented both retrieval practice and spacing techniques, or what the researchers called “successive learning.” Students in Group Four, the control group, were simply told to follow their normal study habits.

The researchers wanted to see how these different reinforcement techniques would affect students’ performance on the final exam. As you might suspect, the “successive learning” group got the highest score, 84%, with the practice-only and spacing-only groups just a few percentage points behind. The lowest performers were the students left to their own devices, averaging 74% – 10 points below the successive learning group.

But the most dramatic findings were during a retest three days after the final exam. The “successive learning” group’s score dropped only slightly, averaging 80%. But the other three groups did far worse. The practice-only students scored 67%, the spacing-only group averaged 58%, and the control group plummeted to 29%.

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Despite all the research on retrieval practice and spacing, very few studies have looked at the effect of using them together.

The present study suggests that the real value to “successive learning” is long-term retention – something learners often don’t achieve when left to their own devices. Learners are notoriously bad at revisiting what they’ve learned. They think they’ve mastered a topic when they haven’t. They focus their study efforts on what they already know instead of their weak points. And they often cram, which can be effective short-term but doesn’t lead to long-term learning.

Since workplace training is about building career-long skills, long-term retention is the ultimate goal. And the study suggests that using the combination of two powerful learning techniques will increase the chances that your learners will hold on to the valuable training you provide.


Space out review sessions over time. With each review session, memory gets stronger. So consider, for example, holding a follow-up session three days after training. Then have another five days later. Then another maybe 10 days after that. Plan for at least five events over the course of two months.

Build retrieval practice into your training. Use a variety of assessments that will force learners to “retrieve” the information from their brains. These assessments can take the form of quizzes, group discussions, role-plays, etc. Any activity that makes learners recall and engage with the material will strengthen memory.

Rawson, K. A., et al. (2013). The power of successive relearning: Improving performance on course exams and long-term retention. Educational Psychology Review, 25(4), 523-548.

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