When studying for a test, most students use a method called massed practice, or as it is commonly known, cramming. The issue teachers find with learners studying intensively days or hours before the test, is that they often achieve their goal, namely successfully passing the assessment, but they couldn’t recall the information weeks, or even days later. The real problem is that, in today’s education, grades are more highly valued than developing a deep and durable understanding of the course material.
One of the oldest and most powerful research bases in cognitive science deals with the opposite of cramming, spaced or distributive practice. Decades ago, studies already showed that spacing out learning sessions in shorter intervals is a far more effective way to create long-term memories. Here is why.
Firstly, spaced practice takes advantage of the usefulness of retrieval practice, a learning strategy which involves calling information to mind that has been previously stored in long-term memory. The more often we practice recalling memories from long-term memory, the more easily we are able to access them, and the more resistant these memories become to being forgotten.
Secondly, unlike massed practice, different retrievals occur in a different setting, and these varied contexts of distributed practices also help with retrieval, by creating several recall pathways to these memories.
Lastly, the act of retrieval is one of memory modification and reorganisation; each retrieval merges new memories with older ones and reinforces them.
For teachers who value durable and useful learning, helping students space out their learning when they study is crucial. Here are some tips about helping students develop the habit of spaced practice.
First is the length of the spacing gaps, which mostly depends on how long students ought to remember the material. Short gaps are useful in case the information needs to be remembered for a short time. Similarly, if retention of that information needs to last months, or even years, the gaps should be lengthened accordingly, yet within reason. Excessively long gaps can lead students to forget essential information, and the exercise’s efficiency to suffer.
Another thing to pay attention to is the frequency of the spacing gaps. We can’t prevent our memory from forgetting some information, but the more often we study something, the longer those memories will last, and the more we will be able to use them. Spacing gaps should therefore be as frequent as possible, given the time available for studying.
Finally, spaced practice is a habit students must develop which requires organisation and time management. To encourage them to get started, remember to emphasise that it takes up no more of their time than cramming, but guarantees far better results in the long run.
Content drawn from “_The Science of Learning — What Every Teacher Should Know_”, EdX: https://www.edx.org