How I Should Have Studied. Part 2: Distributed (Spaced) Practice

Read I’ve Been Studying All Wrong: Highlighting and Rereading and How I Should Have Studied. Part 1: Retrieval Practice if you haven’t already.

Distributed Practice

Ask a group of students which study strategy is more effective:

  1. Studying for 2 hours per week over a 12 week semester
  2. Studying for 24 hours over the 2 days prior to an exam (cramming)

Most students would select option 1, and they would be correct. (Although ask them which they do in practice, and they will probably admit option 2.)

What is distributed practice?

Distributed practice or spaced practice means spacing out study effort over a longer period of time rather than concentrating it in a short time (i.e., cramming). In their review of learning strategies, Dunlosky et al. (2013) concluded:

“…we rate distributed practice as having high utility: It works across students of different ages, with a wide variety of materials, on the majority of standard laboratory measures, and over long delays. It is easy to implement (although it may require some training) and has been used successfully in a number of classroom studies.”

Why should students use distributed practice?

There is ample evidence that students will perform better with distributed practice rather than cramming, even if total study time is the same (Kornell 2009).  It is a more efficient use of students’ time.

If distributed practice is so effective, why don’t students use it more?

Procrastination. Students (and faculty!) have many demands on our time, and we often focus on urgent tasks rather than important, non-urgent tasks (like regularly studying even if the exam isn’t for six weeks). Even dedicated students may start the semester with good intentions that fall by the wayside as their workload increases. In addition, cramming can have some effectiveness, especially in comparison to not studying, but only in the short term.

Students who cram may do okay on an exam, but they quickly forget the material after the exam.  This may not be obvious to students if they are not tested again on the material. (It is, however, obvious to faculty who wonder why students have no recollection of a topic that was covered in a previous course.) I recently gave a talk on effective learning strategies to a group of first-year students, and I asked them this question,

Are you trying to learn material for the test, or because you want to know the material for future courses and real-world use?

If students would like to retain the knowledge beyond the course, it is critical that they use distributed practice. The beauty is that students don’t need to study more, they just need to space out their study effort over a longer period of time!

Another issue is the illusion of mastery. In cramming, students tend not to forget much over the course of the study session, so they feel like they have mastered the material, even though this “mastery” is fleeting (Kornell 2009). If a student studies for a course for two hours once a week, they will forget some of the material in between those study sessions, so they may feel discouraged that they aren’t retaining the knowledge. This is again a desirable difficulty. By struggling to remember and re-learn the material in spaced study sessions, students will be much more likely to retain the information over a longer period of time.

How I facilitate distributed practice for my students

These approaches are suspiciously similar to my approaches for facilitating retrieval practice. This isn’t a coincidence, it is feasible to simultaneously support retrieval practice and distributed practice.

Explaining the Technique

Distributed practice is one of the learning strategies I cover in my first lecture of a course. The best suggestion for students is to schedule specific times each week to study for each class. These don’t need to be large blocks of time (even 30 minutes is great). The key, and challenge, is for students to stick with it all semester. This requires quite a bit of self-discipline, so I also facilitate distributed practice through clickers and low-stakes quizzes.

Clickers

As mentioned in the last post, I ask review questions in each lecture that students answer with clickers. By doing this every lecture, students are simultaneously engaged in retrieval practice and distributed practice. This also incentivizes attendance, which is strongly correlated with performance.

Low-Stakes Online Quizzes

I give weekly, low-stakes, online quizzes. (See last post.) Even with all the quizzes amounting to just 10% of the final grade, students had a high rate of participation. Even if students don’t touch their notes or text outside of lecture or the quizzes, I at least have them engaged in the material outside of class for 30-60 minutes each week. In my most recent course, the quizzes mostly covered that week’s material. To make the practice even more distributed, I’m considering moving to two quizzes each week. One quiz covering the current week’s material, and a second covering material from earlier in the semester. I expect some pushback from students, but hopefully explaining my rationale will make them a bit more willing.

References

Benjamin, A. S., and J. Tullis. 2010. What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology 61:228–247.

Dunlosky, J., K. A. Rawson, E. J. Marsh, M. J. Nathan, and D. T. Willingham. 2013. Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14:4–58.

2 comments

  1. Distributed learning and practicing with tests are really effective. But because every test practice will find that they have not learned knowledge. I feel like I wasted a lot of time. So slowly resist the test practice

    1. Hi Hao,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, retrieval practice can indeed feel discouraging when you don’t get the right answer. Remember though, that getting an answer wrong and then looking up the correct answer is actually really helpful for your future retention of that idea. Incorrect answers when you are studying are not a failure, they are an important part of the learning process. (Also, if we always get the correct answers when we are studying, we probably aren’t challenging ourselves very much.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.