I’ll just come out and say it: students don’t know how to study.

When students are asked how they study the response is often something along these lines:

  • Wait until the night before the test
  • Find my notes and textbook
  • Read/reread notes and textbook
  • Highlight stuff
  • Repeat until I can’t stay awake any longer or distraction gets the best of me

There are several problems with this approach. In an earlier post I covered Rereading vs. Retrieval Practice, and what current research says about these two approaches.

This article compares:

2. Massed Practice vs. Spaced Practicemassed practice purple

Whether it’s studying for an American History test or practicing hitting curve balls, massed practice can be described as a single, long “study session” going over the same information or skill. Most of us know it as cramming. It is usually easy to see improvement from the beginning of a massed practice session to the end. Your mind recognizes the facts more quickly; the swing and timing necessary to hit a curveball are established in your muscle memory.

The next day, however, we often find that the information hasn’t stayed with us.

The basic answer to why this happens is that “The rapid gains produced by massed practice are often evident, but the rapid forgetting that follows is not (p. 47).” The authors of Make It Stick are getting at the heart of education: do we want students to know and perform for a grade, or do we want them to truly and deeply understand the material?

Massed practice leads to short-term satisfaction; spaced practice leads to long-term understanding.

Or, to quote Make It Stick once more:

“Rapid-fire practice leans on short-term memory. Durable learning, however, requires time for mental rehearsal and the other processes of consolidation. Hence, spaced practice works better (p. 49).” 

Alternative to Massed Practice: Spaced Practice

Spaced-practice, also referred to as distributed practice or spaced repetition, is literally what it sounds like: practicing material with periods of time between sessions, rather than in one long study session. And to build on my previous article, spaced practice works best when the time is used efficiently, as in retrieval practice.

Consider it this way: instead of spending four hours in massed practice, break it up into 6-8 separate study sessions of 30-40 minutes.

spaced practice aqua

The space between study sessions allows the mind to forget, which admittedly makes the study session more effortful. It is this extra effort that increases the neuropathways necessary for durable, long-term memory creation.

The first question about spaced practice is generally: How long should the space be? The answer: It depends.

Generally, shorter spaces (one day) to begin with, then longer and longer periods of time as one becomes more proficient (two days, then a week, then a month, etc.).

Spaced practice can be utilized in many ways, but here are two simple examples:

Plan your studying ahead of time:

  • Work from your test date backwards
  • Determine the total number of days until the test
  • Plan 30-45 min. study sessions over the period preceding the test
  • Be flexible: adjust study times when necessary, keep studying when you have time and are in the “flow” of studying, or drop a study session when life’s events get in the way

Leitner System

Leitner System

The Leitner System is designed around flash cards and storage boxes. Each box represents a study interval. Here’s how it works:

Create flashcards and a storage system (Three to five different colored rubber bands or boxes)

  • Each rubber band or box signifies a level:
    • Level one: study every day
    • Level two: study every other day
    • Level three: once a week
    • Level four: bi-weekly
    • Level five: review before the test or monthly
  • Every card you get correct moves up a level
  • Every card you cannot correctly recall moves back to level one

Don’t like using physical note cards? There are a lot of great software programs that allow you to create and study flashcards such as:

Tiny Cards (from Duo Lingo)
ExamTime – GoConqr
Study Blue

Spaced practice may seem like simple organization or an OCD take on studying, however don’t be fooled by the simplicity. The fact that we learn better when we practice material over time should not come as a surprise. The fact that we don’t follow through on this understanding should be surprising.

Schedule some time over the next few days and check out these additional sources:

Make It Stick – Website for the book Make it Stick
The Learning Scientists – Spaced Practice – A great source for a simple, visual resources for spaced practice as a study technique
The Most Powerful Way to Remember What You Study – Thomas Frank YouTube Video
How to Study Effectively with Flash Cards – Thomas Frank YouTube Video

One thought on “The Cognitive Science of Studying: Massed Practice vs. Spaced Practice

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