The Benefits of Cycled Learning: Learning, Resting and Recalling 

By Dean VanDoleweerd Assistant Head: Academics and Heather Avery Associate Head: Strategy

In A New School Schedule that Promotes Well-Being and Engagement  we shared some of the work we are doing to finalize a new schedule for Lakefield College School beginning in 2020/21. It includes thinking that emphasizes a student-centred learning approach and schedule that will deliver the learning outcomes outlined in our strategic plan. In it we shared current ideas on how reducing the number of subjects being studied at any one time can provide a better overall learning experience for students. In this week’s article we share how cycled learning–a schedule pattern of studying a subject, shifting away from that subject for a period of time, and then returning to it–may help students to achieve deeper learning outcomes.

The Benefits of a Schedule that Permits Cycled Learning

The approach of cycled learning is an important feature under consideration for Lakefield College School’s proposed new schedule. The concept encourages a pattern of learning which rotates through periods of time studying a subject, having a break from that subject, and then returning to it at a later period of time.

A cycled learning schedule allows for the structured implementation of spaced repetition, an approach that study strategy researchers know to benefit student learning.

Our LCS learning strategies teachers have been touting the benefits of spaced repetition as a study technique for years.  Put simply, the theory builds on research which concludes that “intermittently returning to material, after time away leads to more durable retention of the knowledge and incorporation into long term memory”  (Schnapp, Nateson, Kok 2018).  

Spaced repetition study, however, is challenging for teenagers in our current schedule.  It relies on the student having the self-discipline to voluntarily return to subject notes and their textbooks regularly throughout the academic year to review materials after other homework is done. 

Massed study, or cramming, requires much less self-discipline, and will allow the student to succeed on a unit test or exam–but cramming does not help students consolidate understanding or move current learning into long-term memory. Independent School Management (ISM) schedule researchers cited one independent high school study where the average final grade on a core science exam in the spring was 87%.  When the same students took the exam again in September, the average grade was 58%. The study noted that “not one student retained mastery of all important concepts over the summer.” It’s important to us that we serve the needs of our students by designing a learning schedule that ensures retention of material, from when they first learn it, to their final exams.  

Spaced repetition is understood as a strategy to solve this problem, and has been applied in specific ways in medical schools where mastery of key concepts and long-term retention of information is absolutely essential. It is also seen as helpful in language vocabulary acquisition and in learning mathematical concepts. 

A cycled learning schedule that structures spaced repetition automatically into the student’s learning process for at least some courses offers the possibility that we can improve students’ retention of information and concepts.  We recognize, however, that cycled learning may benefit students more in some subjects than others.  Our teachers will use their deep knowledge of what works in their particular classrooms to give us input about the ideal placement of individual courses, and that information will inform the final schedule. 

Building Flexibility into Our Schedule for 2020/21

Although we recognize the evidence pointing to the benefits of cycled learning, we are simultaneously cognisant of the challenges our families might face as a result of COVID-19. 

In 2020, we are committed to developing a flexible schedule to accommodate the unforeseen needs of our students as they travel from around the globe to study at LCS. This means the pattern of cycled learning (for next year at least) would be implemented only in a very modest way starting in January. In our current draft schedule, no courses between September and December 2020 would follow a cycled learning pattern.  

Our primary goal for 2020 is to create a schedule that offers maximum flexibility in the face of uncertainties around COVID-19, while simultaneously allowing us to implement some cycled learning courses, later in the year, allowing us to assess the benefits of the approach in particular subject areas.

Whatever the course pattern in 2020, as always our focus will be student-centred and relationship-oriented.  These two qualities are hallmarks of the Lakefield College School learning experience and will remain strongly intact in any schedule shift.