To Cram or Not to Cram: Massed Studying vs Distributed Studying

By Ashley Shookman

Does the following image look like a snapshot of you trying to study for a test the night before it is to occur? If your answer was yes, keep reading. I may have the cure for your studying woes.

 First of all, congratulations on getting into university! Much excitement awaits you as you will surely go throw many changes throughout your next four years of life. College can be a fun time to make new friends, learn new things, and go on many new adventures. However, college is not all fun and games. College actually requires a lot of hard work, dedication, and motivation. If you are anything like me, High School didn’t require too much time studying outside of the classroom in order to get decent grades. I am here to tell you, unfortunately, that college is not the same in terms of studying. I learned this the hard way and that is why I am here to teach you the easy way!

There are two major methods of studying. They are called distributed practice and massed practice. In massed practice studying, the studying is done less frequently but for larger periods of time. This study practice is better known as cramming. In distributed practice studying, one studies for shorter periods of time but studies on multiple separate occasions. (3)

So which one is better? Well, the research undeniably shows that studying more often and spreading out the learning results in better retention of that knowledge. (2) The results from one study, done by Bloom and Shuell in 2014, backs up this statement. Bloom and Shuell tested high school students who were enrolled in a French class. Half of the class learned vocabulary words by using the massed practice. They studied French vocabulary words that were new to them by practicing for thirty minutes in one session. The high schoolers who were practicing distributed studying, studied the same vocabulary words but for ten minutes each day for three days. Then, all of the students were given an exam over the vocabulary words. The results showed that the students who learned the words through distributed practice, did thirty-five percent better on the test than the students who massed studied. (1) This is interesting because the time spent studying was exactly the same. Both groups of students studied for thirty minutes total. So why did the distributed studying group retain more information? And why is this important for a college student to know?

This is very important for a college student to understand because retaining the knowledge of what they learned in college is ultimately going to determine how successful they are in their future career. This is exceptionally important when taking courses that correspond with one’s major or minor. While cramming may allow for you to pass an exam, any information that was memorized is likely to be forgotten as soon as the exam is over. (3)

But WHY do people retain more knowledge when practicing distributed studying than cramming? Well, the answer to that is not so simple. In fact, scientists cannot even all agree on one answer. There are four leading theories, though. The first theory is called the consolidation hypothesis. This theory suggests that the longer the interval of time in between repetitions, or studying sessions, the greater the strength of that item in long-term memory. (2) Another theory is called the differential encoding hypothesis. This theory states that knowledge from distributed studying is encoded into our brains during sequential presentations of the information rather than just the first time. (2) A third theory, called study-phase retrieval theory, tells us that each and every time we reencounter something, such as a tidbit of knowledge, there is an attempted retrieval from our memories. Each time this retrieval is successful and we remember something, that knowledge becomes more resistant to forgetting. (4) Therefore, cramming right before an exam leaves no need for retrieval from memory since the information is still fresh on your mind. The last theory as to why distributed practice is more useful than massed practice is called contextual variability. This theory states that when information is encoded into our brains, the surrounding context of the situation (how we are feeling or what we are thinking about), is also encoded into our brains and then this later serves as a helpful cue for retrieving that information from memory. When massed practice studying is done, typically one’s surroundings don’t change much because the studying is done all at one time. (4)

So how can you, an incoming freshman, apply these scientific findings and use them to your advantage throughout college? Well, it will take motivation and determination. It is best to set aside an allotted amount of time each day for each course. Maybe start with thirty minutes and see how that works for you. The amount of time needed to learn a specific subject will differ from person to person so do not compare yourself to other classmates. Also, do not let interruptions ruin your study time. Put your phones away and turn the television off. Breaks every thirty minutes can also help in staying motivated. Also, try not to take two similar courses in the same semester as information from one course may interfere with the ability to learn similar but different material from another course. Have fun in college and study smarter instead of harder or longer!



Bloom, K.C., & Shuell, T.J. (2014). Effects of Massed and Distributed Practice on the Learning      and Retention of Second-Language Vocabulary. The Journal of Educational Research, 74. Retrieved from

Elmes, D.G., & Greener, W.I., & Wilkinson, W.C. (1972). Free Recall of Items Presented and Massed- and- Distributed-Practice Items. American Journal of Psychology, 85. Retrieved from

Robert, S. (2018). Distributed Learning vs. Massed Learning: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from

Francisco, A. (2015). Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Distributed Practice. Digital Promise. Retrieved from

Unknown. Distributed Practice. Retrieved from

3 Replies to “To Cram or Not to Cram: Massed Studying vs Distributed Studying”

  1. The picture at the beginning was a great example of what students truly look like while trying to study. This is a great way to get through to students and relate to them. Great job on connecting to students through visual aids and text!

  2. When I was an undergraduate many years ago, the teacher I had for most of my courses had studied under Benton Underwood at Northwestern University. She said that his research showed that massed learning is best for retention in learning meaningful material and distributed learning is best only for learning nonsense syllables. This supports a view that is the opposite of what us professors tend to believe: that distributed practice is best for studying classroom materials. Not according to her reading of Underwood.So, what gives?

    1. Hi Russell, thanks for the comment! I’m not sure I understand what your professor in undergrad was stating when she made the dichotomous conclusion about the difference between massed and distributed learning. Are you of the mind that she was wrong? From my understanding, Underwood and colleagues would actually argue that distributed practice works exceptionally well in retention, and much better than massed practice (e.g., Underwood & Ekstrand, 1967). I think the disconnect there could be the time period that your professor worked with Underwood or a conflation of the materials used in early studies and the generalizing of the effects to material beyond nonsense syllables in later studies. However, without knowing more about this mystery professor, I’m not sure there is much more to say!

      There is no research today that would suggest massed practice is better for retention than distributed practice. The evidence is overwhelming in this case, as you so rightly point out.

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