Spaced practice (AKA distributed practice) is a study schedule in which students spread out their study activities over time. For example, in a spaced practice schedule, a student might study five hours for an exam, but do so in five, one-hour time blocks spread out over a week. Spaced practice contrasts with massed practice or cramming which involves studying in one lengthy session, e.g., five consecutive hours the night before an exam.
The distributed practice effect refers to the finding that distributing learning over time typically benefits long term retention more than does massing learning opportunities back-to-back or in relatively close succession.
Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, & Willingham, 2013, p. 35
We know in general that spaced practice is good. For example, a research summary of 254 studies involving more than 14,000 participants found that students scored about 10% higher on tests after spaced study than after massed study (Cepeda, Pashler, Vul, Wixted, & Rohrer, 2006).
There is, however, no simple rule about the optimal length of the interval between study sessions. However, longer intervals between study sessions tend to be more beneficial. In a study of trivia learning, performance was best when the learning episodes were spaced 10%-20% of the retention interval. To remember something for one week, the study sessions were 12-24 hours apart. To remember something for 5 years, study was spaced six to 12 months apart. Research has found that even if students forget course material after a long delay, they can relearn it quickly.
Although instructors and students realize that spaced practice is beneficial for learning, it is challenging to incorporate it into classes, and a difficult strategy for students to maintain on their own.
Suggestions for instructors
- Cumulative in-class review sessions. If you do in class review sessions, make them cumulative by asking some questions from preceding units.
- Cumulative exams. Include questions from previous units.
- Frequent low stakes quizzing. Frequent quizzes build spaced practice into the course routine. Students will spread out their study time as they complete assignments and quizzes. Include questions from previous quizzes on current quizzes.
- Emphasize the cumulative nature of learning, and that long-term retention and mastery of a subject or skill require long-term practice.
- Consider giving students explicit cues or advice about what to study and when. Some students need the reminders.
- Create a timetable for a segment of the course content that incudes suggested dates for working on assignments and studying according to a spaced schedule. Again, emphasize the benefits of spacing study as opposed to cramming before the exam. Students will learn more, retain it longer, and experience less stress.
- Encourage students to use more effective learning strategies than rereading or simple review. Otherwise they are not making the best use of their time. Promote self-testing, self-explanation, studying with a partner or group, doing practice problems, writing answers to study guide questions and so forth.
- Give students practice with effective learning strategies in review sessions, e.g., give a practice test rather than summarize material for them, or engage students in explaining or teaching the material to one another.
Carpenter, S.K. (2014). Spacing and interleaving of study and practice, In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science in the curriculum(pp. 131–141). Washington, DC: Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Retrieved from https://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/index.php
Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354–380.
Dunlosky, J., & Rawson, K. A. (2015). Practice tests, spaced practice, and successive relearning: Tips for classroom use and for guiding students’ learning. Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology, 1, 72–78. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/stl0000024
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4–58. http://dx.doi.org/10 .1177/1529100612453266