Distributed practice

Distributed practice is the idea of delaying retrieval of information that you want to remember, as opposed to trying to learn the same thing for an extended period of time. Is it better to break up learning sessions about that topic over several days or work at one segment of information for a long period of time? Distributed practice versus cramming?

The evidence is unequivocally in favour of distributed practice. Large-scale meta-analyses (Cepeda et al., 2006; Delaney, Verkoeijen & Spirgel, 2010) have shown the positive effects of distributed practice as opposed to massed practice (where there is no gap between successive rehearsals). This has also been found by Benjamin & Tullis (2010) and Toppino & Gerbier (2014). It has even been found for children as young as 4 years old for free recall (Toppino, 1991). This phenomenon has been called the “spacing effect”. There is evidence to suggest that the longer you want to learn something for, the longer gap you should have between each session (Cepeda et al., 2008). They found that the best time lag to have between sessions was 10-20% of the time you wanted to remember it for. So if you want to learn something for 1 week, the learning sessions should be spaced 12-24 hours apart; to remember something for 5 years, space the sessions 6-12 months apart (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

So we know that distributed practice is better than cramming. But what type of distributed practice should you use? If you are trying to learn a series of topics or concepts that are very similar e.g. different models for explaining mental illness, then it has been repeatedly shown that by mixing up which topic you learn about (interleaved study) helps with recall and understanding (Taylor & Rohrer, 2010; Rohrer & Taylor, 2007). So first you could study the disease model, then the integrated model, the social model and finally the psycho-dynamic model (Tyrer, 2013) in one session. This is opposed to dedicating one session to each of the different models (blocked learning). We should note that the improvement in learning with interleaved study is not even due to the spacing effect (as this method usually incurs there being a delay between sessions), but because of the cross-category comparisons that can be made using interleaved study (Carvalho & Goldstone, 2014c). On the flip side, if the categories to be learnt have low similarity then using blocked learning has been found to be more effective (Zulkiply & Burt, 2013; Carvalho & Goldstone, 2014a).

In conclusion, it seems clear that distributed practice is far more effective for learning than cramming is. It’s easy to implement as the thing it requires is that you plan your learning sessions in advance (but seeing as most students do not plan their learning months in advance, this might be easier said than done).

Benjamin, A.S. & Tullis, J. (2010). What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology, 61, 228-247.
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.
Cepeda, N.J.; Vul, E.; Rohrer, D.; Wixted, J.T. & Pashler, H. (2008). Spacing effects in learning: A temporal ridgeline of optimal retention. Psychological Science, 19, 1095-1102.
Carvalho, P.F. & Goldstone, R.L. (2014a). Putting category learning in order: Category structure and temporal arrangement affect the benefit of interleaved over blocked study. Memory and Cognition, 42, 481-495.
Carvalho, P.F. & Goldstone, R.L. (2014c). Effects of interleaved and blocked study on delayed test of category learning generalisation. Frontiers in Prsychology, 5 (936), 1-11.
Delaney, P.F.; Verkoeijen, P.P.J.L & Spirgel, A. (2010). Spacing and the testing effects: A deeply critical, lengthy, and at times discursive review of the literature. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 53, 63-147.
Dunlosky, J.; Rawson, K.; Marsh, E.; Nathan, M. & Willingham, D. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. 14 (1), 4-58.
Rohrer, D. & Taylor, K. (2007). The shuffling of mathematics problems improves learning. Instructional Science, 35, 481-498.
Taylor, K. & Rohrer, D. (2010). The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 837-848.
Toppino, T.C. (1991). The spacing effect in young children’s free recall: Support for automatic-process explanations. Memory and Cognition, 19 (2), 159-167.
Toppino, T.C. & Gerbier, E. (2014). About Practice: Repetition, Spacing, and Abstraction. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 60, 113-189.
Tyrer, P. (2013). Models for Mental Disorders: Conceptual Models in Psychiatry. 5th ed. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell. 1-123.
Zulkiply, N, & Burt, J.S. (2013). The exemplar interleaving effect in inductive learning: Moderation by the difficulty of category discriminations. Memory and Cognitions, 41, 16-27. (function(i,s,o,g,r,a,m){i[‘GoogleAnalyticsObject’]=r;i[r]=i[r]||function(){ (i[r].q=i[r].q||[]).push(arguments)},i[r].l=1*new Date();a=s.createElement(o), m=s.getElementsByTagName(o)[0];a.async=1;a.src=g;m.parentNode.insertBefore(a,m) })(window,document,’script’,’//www.google-analytics.com/analytics.js’,’ga’); ga(‘create’, ‘UA-63654510-1’, ‘auto’); ga(‘send’, ‘pageview’);

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