Many of our students are still developing and refining their study habits as they transition from high school to college or as they enter new disciplines. Students may not be accustomed to the amount of content and the speed at which it is covered in college courses. Instructors in all courses and at all levels can structure their courses to help students learn course material over time and steer students away from cramming for an exam the night before. Strategies to help students space their learning include low-stakes assessments for practice, scaffolded assignments with intermediate due dates for drafts, and in-class activities that require students to learn and recall key course concepts and terms.
Spaced (or distributed) practice refers to learning that takes place over time with rest periods between practice sessions. Students using spaced practice might break down study time to do work on several different courses consecutively or do other activities in between study periods. Massed (or blocked) practice refers to learning that happens in a single session with no rest period. When studying, students using massed practice would study the same material over and over, redo the same quiz repeatedly, or reread the same piece of text several times (Shea & Morgan, 1979; Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015). We often refer to this as cramming. Cramming is a less effective way to acquire and retain information in the long term because our brains need time to move information from short-term (or working) memory to long-term memory, thereby allowing us to retain that information. When students have time to spread out their learning, they return to key concepts and terms and can shift that new information from working memory to long-term memory. In studies, researchers have found drastic declines in the performance of students who used massed practice as compared to those who spaced their practice when they first learned the materials (Rohrer & Pashler, 2007). The reason is that distributed practice requires students to encode and then retrieve the information over time. The act of retrieval facilitates our long-term learning and performance (Kim & Webb, 2022; Soderstrom & Bjork, 2015).
- If your course requires students to learn new vocabulary and concepts, give students practice quizzes, multiple attempts on graded quizzes, and other opportunities to practice learning vocabulary and applying concepts over time.
- Use question banks to draw random questions from repository of questions so that students are not retaking the same quiz every time they practice.
- Return to earlier concepts throughout the semester by returning to earlier quiz questions. This is especially important if you have cumulative exams.
Key terms: spaced or distributed practice; massed or blocked practice
Who is doing this at IU?
In her L104 Biology of the Senses course, Laura Mojonnier (Biology) uses spaced practice to help her students gradually develop the skills and confidence to interpret scientific data. This large, introductory course is taken by non-majors, so they need practice with their data interpretation skills throughout the semester. Laura uses a set of related graphs through the semester and students learn how to interpret these and gradually build the familiarity and skills needed for more complex applications.
In her course, AFRI-L232 Contemporary Africa, Emily Stratton uses spaced practice to help her students learn the names and locations of the 54 African countries, 5 geographical and 6 geopolitical regions, and 30 selected major cities. Her students are mostly non-majors taking this course as part of their GenEd requirements. They often doubt that they will be able to learn all this content, but with Emily’s support through the use of spaced practice, they are surprised that they can do so by the end of the course and often report feeling a strong sense of accomplishment. Emily helps students gradually learn all the content by first focusing upon the countries within one geographical region of the continent at a time. Then, they add geopolitical regions, and lastly cities. Emily helps her students pace their learning by quizzing them multiple times in the semester. Each quiz reviews older content alongside new content, so that students practice knowledge retention. At each step of the way, students begin to make more sense of the rest of the course content, understanding it within its geographical context.
Kim, S. K., & Webb, S. (2022). The effects of spaced practice on second language learning: A meta‐analysis. Language Learning, 72(1), 269-319. https://doi.org/10.1111/lang.12479
Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2007). Increasing retention without increasing study time. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(4), 183-186. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00500.x
Shea, J. B., & Morgan, R. L. (1979). Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill. Journal of Experimental psychology: Human Learning and memory, 5(2), 179. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0278-7322.214.171.124
Soderstrom, N. C., & Bjork, R. A. (2015). Learning versus performance: An integrative review. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 176-199. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691615569000
Teo, W. Z. W., Dong, X., Yusoff, S. K. B. M., Das De, S., & Chong, A. K. S. (2021). Randomized controlled trial comparing the effectiveness of mass and spaced learning in microsurgical procedures using computer aided assessment. Scientific reports, 11(1), 2810. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-82419-6
Wahlheim, C. N., Dunlosky, J., & Jacoby, L. L. (2011). Spacing enhances the learning of natural concepts: An investigation of mechanisms, metacognition, and aging. Memory & cognition, 39, 750-763. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-010-0063-y