The story is a familiar one across college campuses:students stay up late into the night cramming weeks’ worth of material into one study session before the big exam, only to forget the material as soon as the exam is over.
As educators, we recognize that poor long-term retention of material is linked to cramming, or massed practice—when studying is concentrated into a single session. A better approach for lasting learning is distributed practice—when studying is spread across multiple sessions over time.
Though we can’t force our students to adopt more effective study strategies like distributed practice, we can encourage them to do so through the choices we make when planning our courses. One particularly effective way we can encourage students to distribute their studying is by distributing our testing throughout the quarter.
Over a century of research shows that distributed practice leads to better long-term retention of material than the same amount of massed practice, a phenomenon known as the spacing effect.
But how much “spacing” do you need to see the spacing effect? The truth is it varies quite a bit. The amount of time between study sessions can be less than a minute or more than a year. Research suggests that the ideal amount of time between study sessions is about 10-20% of the duration you want to remember the material. So foundational material that needs to be remembered throughout a series of courses should be studied after longer intervals than material that is specific to a project or case study.
Why is distributed practice so effective? Theories implicating either encoding, retrieval, or consolidation of memory are popular, but however it works, it is clear that distributed practice is a successful study strategy for the real world. The spacing effect applies across
Students tend to concentrate their studying before exams, so we can nudge them toward distributing their studying by distributing our testing. The idea is to make testing frequent enough that students must alter their study habits. Here are a few suggestions for implementing distributed testing.
Start with small changes. Begin or end each class session with a review exercise, or add a few pop quizzes into the syllabus. In fact, consider using classroom technology, like clickers, for both fun and efficient testing opportunities.
When you feel ready for a big change, replace the traditional midterm(s) and final with multiple shorter exams spaced throughout the quarter. Yes, it will take some time to redesign exams, and keep them aligned with the material that is covered week-to-week, but much of the original content and format can be reused.
Besides encouraging distributed practice, distributed testing brings other benefits:
Finally, many students actually prefer distributed testing. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Here are some actual endorsements from my students’ evaluations:
“Because we expected either a quiz or a response paper every week, I was always on top of the material.”
“The three quizzes tested our knowledge in a great fashion because it reinforced us to study in a distributed way and helped us solidify our knowledge of the subjects.”
In sum, we can encourage our students to adopt effective study strategies like distributed practice through simple and well-received practices like distributed testing. Good luck!
Do you have other creative ideas to encourage distributed practice? Have you tried distributed testing in your classroom? Share your comments and experiences below.
Tania Henetz is a Ph.D. candidate in Psychology.