Spaced Practice

This self-guided tutorial focuses on how to use spaced practice as a learning strategy and includes

  1. an explanation of how and why spaced practice improves learning
  2. how to use spaced practice effectively
  3. how to make a spaced practice study schedule

Spaced Practice Explained

Cramming involves studying large amounts of information in one long session, e.g., studying for 5 hours the night before an exam. The opposite of cramming is spaced practice (also known as distributed practice), in which you divide your study time into shorter, separate study periods. If you planned to study a total of 5 hours for a test, a spaced practice schedule might be to study in five, one-hour time blocks every other day. This example highlights two key parts to spaced practice. One is that you spread out the study sessions over time, and two is that you study all the material multiple times.

Does it really matter whether you cram or space your study? There is pretty convincing research evidence that spaced practice is better—you learn more material that lasts longer. The graph below shows the results of a study in which students learned a list of synonyms (difficult word pairs, e.g., apotheosis-deification). They studied either by cramming (massed practice) or spaced practice. In the massed condition students studied the material in one lengthy session either 1, 2, 3, or 4 days before taking the test. In the spaced condition, students studied the material in short sessions on different days up to four days before the test. Time was controlled so that all students studied the same amount of time. As the graph indicates, students in the spaced condition far outperformed those in the massed conditions.

Note that spaced practice resulted in an average test score of about 55%. Spaced practice involved shorter study sessions on different days and the last study session was four days before the test. The groups that crammed all had much lower scores, between 15% – 35%, including the group that crammed and then took the test the next day. Their average score was about 35%. Students in the spaced practice schedule did not study more than students in the other conditions. They distributed their study over time.

Table 2: Percentage Correct on a Test for Massed Practice (Cramming) and Spaced Practice

Spaced Practice Results

Source: Rhodes, Cleary, & DeLosh, 2020, p. 159

Even though spaced practice is superior to cramming, more than 50% of college students report that they cram for tests. Why is cramming so prevalent when it clearly is less effective than spaced practice? Students use cramming for several reasons.

  • Students don’t realize that spacing is good and cramming is bad. Some may think that studying too far in advance of a test is a waste of time because all the information will be forgotten by the time of the test. However, the exact opposite is true. You remember information from spaced practice far longer than from cramming.
  • Students try but do not adhere to a spaced practice study schedule. Spaced practice requires time management, planning and follow through. You must decide how much time to dedicate to studying for each course, how to allocate your study time, schedule it, and then follow it. Some find it difficult to make a viable spaced practice plan and stick to it.
  • Students may cram because they believe it “works” for them. If you experience success with cramming, you may believe it is a viable study strategy. The problem is that you may pass a test, but you will forget most of the material quickly. In effect, this puts you further behind in the course because as you move on to the next part of the class, you still don’t know the material from the previous part.

Using Spaced Practice Effectively

You can optimize spaced practice by incorporating these seven suggestions.

1. Start small. If you have never used spaced practice before, it may be easiest to start by planning a study schedule for one course or one unit in a course. Use a calendar to identify test dates and assignment due dates. Work backwards from these to identify the days and times you plan to study and work on assignments. In the next section of the course we will explore how to create a spaced practice study plan.

2. Allow sufficient lag time between study sessions. Lag time is a key feature of spaced practice. It is the time allowed between your practice sessions. A good rule of thumb for exams is to plan at least three study sessions separated by 1-2 days each. It is important to separate study sessions by a day or two. After a day or two it may be a little more difficult to remember the material. But that’s good. The best time to restudy material is after you have started to forget it.

3. Study cumulatively for each exam. Another key feature of spaced practice is that you study all the material for an exam multiple times. For example, suppose you have a 4-week unit with an exam at the end of the 4th week. On a spaced practice schedule, you would study material not just from the current week or most recent class period, but from the previous weeks as well. Let’s say you made practice questions for each class period and used these for practice quizzes. In the 3rd week of the unit your practice test would include not only material from week 3 but practice questions from weeks 1 and 2. This maximizes the effect of spaced practice because each time you study material after a delay of several days, you strengthen your memory for it.

4. Use effective learning strategies. Maximize your study time by using effective learning strategies. Try to incorporate self-explanation and self-testing. For example, you could self-test and self-explain with practice quizzes or practice questions at each study session.

5. Study cumulatively for the course final exam. Finals week is traditionally an intense and difficult experience involving cognitive overload as you try to complete assignments and study for multiple exams that all take place within a few days of one another. An alternative to the intense overload (and dread) of finals week is to front load much of your studying to earlier in the term. Spaced practices allows you to restudy material throughout the semester. Every 2-3 weeks restudy important course material from earlier in the term. An excellent strategy is use practice quizzes and practice questions from earlier in the term. Instead of trying to relearn an entire semester of material in a day or two before the final, you could study 6-8 times for about an hour each throughout the term. At the end of the semester you would know the material and would not need long cram sessions in the days before final exams.

6. Work on trouble spots. Another benefit of spaced practice is that you can identify problems while you still have time to work them out. Suppose you have an exam in two weeks. As you study you realize there are some concepts you do not understand very well. Fortunately, there is time to get help and work out the difficulties well before the test. If you wait to study all the material until the day before the exam, there will be no time to deal with trouble spots.

7. Minimize distractions and increase your efficiency. A common problem that derails learning is inefficient studying. Studies have shown that during an hour of study time many students only spend 40 minutes actually studying. A major cause of inefficiency is excessive media multitasking while studying, e.g., texting, checking social media, watching videos, etc. Unfortunately, many students do not see multi-tasking as a problem. They believe they can attend to two tasks at the same time, e.g., text while reading an assignment. Research has shown that people cannot attend to two complex activities simultaneously. Instead when you try to do two things, you actually have to shift your attention back and forth. This is inefficient. It takes more time (not less time), the quality of your work suffers (you make more mistakes), and it leads to fatigue (it’s more tiring). Students who multitask chronically, especially with social media, have lower grades than students who avoid distractions. If chronic inattention and distractions are a problem for you, try to develop a new habit in which you commit yourself to 30-40 minutes of uninterrupted study time (turn off your phone) followed by a 5-10-minute break. When you study you need your full attention on the task at hand.

Make a Spaced Practice Study Schedule

How to Make a Spaced Practice Study Schedule 

Think of a study schedule as an addition to or extension of your course schedule. Your class schedule identifies the locations, dates, and times for classes. It structures a significant portion of your time. A study schedule should do the same by identifying the locations, dates, and times for studying.

A structured study schedule is important because it establishes dedicated time for out-of-class study. Many students report that they intend to study on a spaced practice schedule but don’t. When you don’t have dedicated study time it is easier to attend to other priorities. For example, you have an exam at the end of the week in Class X and think you should study for it today, but you have an assignment due in Class Y tomorrow. Doing the assignment takes priority. The one-hour study time for Class X has disappeared. Surveys indicate that students tend to study or work on whatever is due “next.” Moreover, students have multiple commitments competing for their time, family, work, friends, etc. Unless study time is on your schedule, your discretionary time for study may be used up by other activities and priorities.

A structured study schedule is not a total solution to time management problems, but it does make study time a more visible commitment, and provides concrete directions for studying. A schedule identifies when (dates) and how (strategies) you will study for an exam. It helps you be more intentional about studying.

Below is an example of a spaced practice study schedule for an exam. This framework is divided into two sections. One section is for planning in which you describe what you plan to study and how you plan to study it. The second section is a schedule that indicates the days you plan to study.

Spaced Practice Study Plan Example

Key features of a spaced practice study schedule:

  1. Make a study plan that fits your circumstances. The example above is not a fixed template that you need to copy. Your plan should fit your circumstances. You might schedule more or fewer study sessions depending on your background knowledge of the topic, learning goals, type of test, amount of material, difficulty of the material, other time commitments, and so on.
  2. Think of reading the assigned material before class as “studying for the exam.” It is your first exposure to the material that will be part of the exam. Incorporate your initial reading assignments into your study schedule.
  3. Optimize your learning by using effective learning strategies. For example, use self-explanation strategies to help you understand new concepts. This will also prepare you to better understand the upcoming class period where the new material will be covered.
  4. Allow lag time between study sessions. In the example above, study is spread out over two weeks, with self-testing study sessions about every third day. Lag time is important because studying works best when you have started to forget the material. Immediately after reading a textbook chapter, the information is “fresh” in your mind and you may be able to give reasonable answers to practice questions. But a day or two later, the information will not be as fresh or accessible. That is an ideal time to restudy the material.
  5. Make self-testing study sessions cumulative. That means every time you self-test over newly read material, you should also include “old” questions from previous self-tests. This is what gives spaced practice its powerful effect on memory; you self-test multiple times over all the material. Remember the informal rule of thumb; answer questions correctly 9 times — 3 times in each of 3 different study sessions.
  6. There is no long cram session at the end of the two-week period! The last study session is like all the others and involves self-testing on questions from the entire unit. Cramming is not necessary.

Use this Spaced Practice Study Template to create your study schedule.