Spaced Practicespaced-practice

When you study for a course can be critically important. It can make a big difference in how much you learn and how well you are later able to perform (such as on midterm or other high-stakes test). Here we outline the do’s and don’ts of when you should learn course content.

Don’t: cramming.

Studies show that in the weeks leading up to an exam, students often spend very little time preparing for it. Only when there are just 2 or 3 days left do they intensively “cram” for the exam.1 This usually leads to poor results. In the rush to absorb large quantities of information, important details are glossed over or lost. It is difficult to thoroughly process important concepts and to integrate them in a meaningful way. Repeating information over and over in one sitting is also often wasted effort; any learning benefits from such efforts are usually lost (that is, forgotten) even just a few days later.2

Do: space out your learning over time.

Rather than intensively cramming right before the exam, a more effective strategy is to distribute your exam preparation over multiple sessions. This is known as spaced practice or distributed practice. By “spacing” learning activities out over time (for example, 1 to 2 hours every other day, or at least once per week, rather than a 12-hour marathon cramming session), you will be able to learn more information and retain it longer.

Unlike cramming, spaced practice involves multiple learning sessions, but each session is shorter. Having multiple sessions allows you to “divide and conquer” by focusing on a subset of materials during each session. Without the pressure to cover all the course content that might come up on an exam, as occurs when cramming, during each session you can spend more time processing and integrating important concepts and details from a portion of the course. Moreover, each session is an opportunity for you to go back and review information that you previously learned. By repeatedly revisiting course materials over multiple sessions, you will be able to more effectively encode that information into long-term memory, fill in any gaps in your knowledge, and be better equipped to use that information on the next exam.

The benefit of distributing learning over time is commonly known as the spacing effect. This effect has been demonstrated in over 200 research studies from over a century of research.3 Generally speaking, multiple practice sessions over time results in better long-term memory than a single practice session of equivalent duration or an equivalent number of repetitions.


How do I use spaced practice?

First, start early. This begins by checking your course syllabus. The syllabus typically contains a schedule of the different topics that will be covered in the course and the dates of each quiz or exam. Using that syllabus, you can devise a calendar where exam preparation begins several weeks in advance and continues on a regular basis up until the exam date. Ideally you should devote an hour or two at regular intervals (such as every other day, every Monday and Friday, or some other fixed interval) to exam preparation. Moreover, you should aim to go over course materials more than once. For example, materials that you learned during Week 1 can be revisited during Weeks 3 and 4.

After you have created a “spaced” learning schedule, follow through with your plan. Make sure that you stick to the schedule and avoid skipping sessions. This will require discipline (that is, avoiding distractions, being committed to your learning activities on a regular basis), but when the exam date arrives, you will be better equipped to achieve a solid result.

To sum up, when using spaced practice you should:

  • Plan a “spaced” learning schedule ahead of time – using the syllabus as a guide, create a schedule where you start preparing for the exam early (weeks ahead ideally), and continue doing so at regular intervals until the actual exam date (your learning should be distributed out over days or weeks).

  • Spend time preparing for the course at regular, periodic intervals – follow through with your plans by completing multiple learning sessions at regular intervals. Unlike cramming, each session does not need to be very long and does not need to cover all course materials; you should divide up materials across the different sessions.

  • Focus on both new and old materials – as you prepare for the exam, be sure to learn not just new materials, but also go back and practice content that you have already learned. This helps reduce forgetting (your memories stay “fresh”). It can help to allocate a certain amount of time to new vs. old materials (for example, 75% time spent on new materials, 25% time spent on old materials).

Downloadable Resources

  • How to Study Less and Remember More [PDF], includes summary of how to use spaced practice

Further Resources

How-To Video      

How to Use Spaced Practice


References

1 Taraban, R., Maki, W. S., & Rynearson, K. (1999). Measuring study time distributions: Implications for designing computer-based courses. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 31(2), 263-269.
2 Rohrer, D., & Pashler, H. (2007). Increasing retention without increasing study time. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(4), 183-186.
3 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(3), 354.

Prepared by S. C. Pan for UCSD Psychology

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