Slow and Steady Wins the Race—Distributed vs. Massed Practice

By Keely Smith and Melanie Hernandez

Picture this. It is late August. Tomorrow is the day that you leave your hometown to move into your college dorm. You cannot contain your excitement. You are going to your dream school. This is the moment you have waited for all summer. But, you realize that you are a little worried. Numerous questions run through your head. What if college is much harder than high school? What if you do not get the same good grades that you always used to? What if you do not maintain the GPA you need in order to keep your scholarship? What if you disappoint your parents? If this sounds like you, then you have found your way to the right blog—we are here to offer you Cognitive Psychology’s best advice for successful learning and studying in college.

What is Cognitive Psychology’s best advice you ask? Well, one of the most effective study techniques is that of distributed practice, which consists of “implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out activities over time” (1). In other words, distributed practice is essentially studying for a short period of time every day leading up to the exam; that said, it is basically the direct opposite of massed practice (2). Massed practice is a term used to describe what is typically called “cramming,” or studying all of the material in one, long period of time right before the exam. That being said, all of the studying advice that your previous teachers have probably given to you that you should “not cram” or that you should “take breaks” is actually grounded in Cognitive Psychology research (3).

As college students ourselves, we know that cramming may sometimes seem like the more desirable option. College students are often incredibly busy, and we often have a lot to juggle. Attending classes, taking part in clubs, playing sports, assisting a professor in his or her research, and working a campus job are activities that tend to take up most of our time—just to name a few. With that being said, it is easy to see how cramming may appeal to college students despite its inefficiencies. Still, we want to persuade you away from cramming because of the fact that it is not a good study strategy. As Ebbinghaus once said, “a suitable distribution of [repetitions] over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time” (4). Here’s why.

According to a study done by Vlach and Sandhofer (2012), there are four different theories used to explain why distributed practice works; these theories are the following: deficient processing theories, encoding variability theories, consolidation theories, and study-phase retrieval theories.

First, deficient processing theories suggest that students (or learners in general) do not process the second presentation of information as fully when studied in massed practice (cramming) compared to the level of processing of the second presentation when in distributed practice. That is, while cramming, students unconsciously do not pay as much attention to the second presentation as they would if they studied a little bit each day (5).

Furthermore, encoding variability theories essentially argue that distributed practice works because “events that are further apart in time are thus likely to be more ‘different’ than events that are close together,” which leads to a greater number of cues that would allow students to retrieve and remember that information (6).

The third group of theories, consolidation theories, discuss how memory is made stable after the initial presentation of the information as a way to explain how distributed practice works. In short, these theories state that structures and cells in the nervous system change due to learning; then, they remain in a state where they can react easily for a certain amount of time following that learning (7).

Lastly, even though there are four different classes of theories, the theories that are currently the most dominant are that of study-phase retrieval theories; these are the last types of theories that Vlach and Sandhofer (2012) mentioned in their article (8). Study-phase retrieval theories assert that distributed practice works because the repetition that occurs while studying for a little bit every day acts as a way to remind the student that he or she has studied this information before. Thus, when a student is reminded of the first presentation of the information, he or she will likely think about it again; in doing so, this increases one’s memory of the first presentation. According to this theory, massed practice does not offer this increased memory because the first presentation is still occurring during the second presentation; therefore, the information is not repeated nor is the student reminded of the first presentation (9).

 

Having said all of this, each theory takes a different perspective as to why distributed practice works; however, regardless of which theory is the most accurate or has the most research support, all of the theories do agree on one thing—distributed practice is an effective study tool.

To close, picture this. It is now the middle of May. You have just finished your freshman year of college, and you are back at home. There are many thoughts running through your head as you wait for your professors to publish your final grades, but you are not worried. They are all good thoughts. You feel confident that you did well on all of your finals, and you feel this way because you have listened to the advice in this blog post. You utilized the study strategy discussed here—distributed practice. Now, you cannot wait to see how well you did on your report card, and you cannot believe you never tried this study strategy before.


References:

(1) 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.

(2) Smith, S. M., & Rothkopf, E. Z. (1984). Contextual enrichment and distribution of practice in the classroom. Cognition and Instruction, 1, 341-358.

(3) Reder, L. M., & Anderson, J. R. (1982). Effects of spacing and embellishment on memory for the main points of a text. Memory & Cognition, 10, 97-102.

(4) Ebbinghaus, H. (1964). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology (H.A. Ruger, C.E. Bussenius, & E.R. Hilgard, Trans.). New York: Dover Publications. (Original work published in 1885).

(5) Hintzman, D. L. (1974). Theoretical implications of the spacing effect. In R. L. Solso (Ed.), Theories in cognitive psychology; The Loyola symposium (pp. 77–97). Potomac, MD: Erlbaum

(6) Benjamin, A. S., & Tullis, J. (2010). What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology, 61, 228-247.

(7) Landauer, T. K. (1969). Reinforcement as consolidation. Psychological Review, 76, 82-96.

(8) Vlach, H. A., & Sandhofer, C. M. (2012). Distributed learning over time: The spacing effect in children’s acquisition and generalization of science concepts. Child Development, 83, 1137-1144.

(9) Greene, R. L. (1989). Spacing effect in memory: Evidence for a two-process account. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15, 371-377.

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