Why the holidays may not matter when it comes to learning and why my first lessons back will be tests


“Forgetting focuses remembering and fosters learning; remembering generates learning and causes forgetting; learning causes forgetting, begets remembering, and supports new learning.”  Bjork 2011

I’ve seen some online articles that raise concerns with the length of the school holidays. Whilst there may be other concerns, I don’t think they’re overly problematical in terms of learning.  This is because this time can be classed as ‘forgetting time’, which research suggests may help with learning.

Why forgetting is important

I’m not going to do a literature review on why. I will just recommend this brilliant chapter from Bjork (2011) to do that. He says that “forgetting [is] a facilitator of learning”. It is actually part of the learning process.

He goes on to say “any forgetting will therefore increase the acquisition of storage strength”; forgetting during the holidays, might just be a useful thing. However, most research focuses on comparatively short delays between learning and retrieval e.g. hours, days, 1 week.  There is little that suggests what the length of the forgetting should be for a two or three-year GCSE course, for example.

Twitter colleague Damian Benney has written a great blog on what he thinks the optimal time should be. He references Cepeda et al (2008) that are clear on this, “To put it simply, if you want to know the optimal distribution of your study time, you need to decide how long you wish to remember something.”. We know this for GCSE. It’s not 100% guaranteed but if we start to consider our forgetting gaps, as Damian is, could we begin to work on finding some suggested optimal timings for retrieval?

Conversely, they also conclude “If a person wishes to retain information for several years, a delayed review of at least several months seems likely to produce a highly favorable return on the time investment”. Is this evidence that the holidays might not hinder but actually support learning? It seems a possibility.

There is however, a caveat to regarding holidays as ‘good’ forgetting time. I believe that this doesn’t work if the first retrieval is after the 6 week break. A teacher cannot just give a test on the first day back and expect students to do well without the previous retrieval opportunities. The classic Ebbinghaus model of forgetting suggests that without retrieval we will quickly forget what we learn over a matter of minutes/hours.  Taking the research into consideration, it suggests that it only works when there have been previous recall opportunities with increasing gaps.

This has implications for the learning 1-2 months before the holidays. Spacing of topics needs to begin from the moment something is ‘learnt’ with increasing gaps. All the holiday provides is the larger gap between retrievals. If a student hasn’t ever retrieved something before the holiday then the forgetting curve kicks in and it becomes much more difficult to retrieve.  Unscientifically, I suggest that the first retrieval after the holiday should be the 4th or 5th time it has been retrieved, not the 1st.

If we followed this argument through, I might even suggest that the last week/s of the summer term should be dedicated to retrieval practice. You might call these end of year tests (that are truly at the very end of the academic year in the last days i.e without time to mark and write reports as sometimes they’re used for). Or you could have a ‘quiz week’. It really doesn’t matter what it’s called, but two things could be important: 1) There is no new content being learnt at the end of term, as there won’t be the time for the initial retrievals in school and 2) They are part of a planned, spaced, retrieval programme.

A test the first lesson back

So, whilst some may think I’m an evil teacher giving students a test on the first lesson back, that’s what all my GCSE classes will get. Not because I’m evil but because I want them to learn from day 1. It will get them to retrieve learning from the previous year/s of the course to try to breach the 40 day gap of forgetting.  Instead of just reminding them of what we’ve learnt before, Kornell et al 2011 suggest that “Retrieving information from memory produces more learning than does being presented with the same information”. Their test might just be best for learning itself.

I don’t care about their result. I don’t use marks/scores. It’s the importance of this event in the forgetting/long term memory plan that matters. Bjork 2011 says that “retrieving information from memory is a learning event”. My students are used to this. We do it all the time in class. I believe that students do want to get back into their school routine in September, in my classroom. Some will be relieved to start answering the questions. I’ve not heard a complaint from any of them to date. They know it’s about learning not performance.

Considering these points, might teachers begin to plan their curriculum around the gaps that holidays create to be the ‘forgetting’ part of learning? Could we consider holidays to be one of the key aspects of learning instead of worrying about students forgetting and not remembering? With some considered planning, I think we can use holidays to our advantage.

Referenced reading/research