Encouraging distributed practice through distributed testing

Encouraging distributed practice through distributed testing

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.

Distributed practice: The basics

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

  • Settings:  laboratory, sport and educational contexts
  • Disciplines:  humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences
  • Content:  definitions, facts, vocabulary, and skills (e.g. motor skills like typing or surgery)
  • Assessment formats:  free-recall, multiple-choice, short answer, essay, performance

Encouraging distributed practice through distributed testing

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. 

Additional benefits of distributed testing

Besides encouraging distributed practice, distributed testing brings other benefits:

  1. Testing is an effective study technique in and of itself.There is robust evidence that taking a test is better for learning retention than simply re-studying the same material.
  2. Distributing tests distributes grading as well. Though regular grading sounds like extra work, it gives both instructors and students frequent feedback on their performance.
  3. Students are less anxious about testing. With more exams, there is less riding on each score and there are more opportunities for improvement.

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.”

“Awesome exams”    

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.

 

 

 

Comments

Tania, thank you for this helpful post. I have a comment and a few questions for you. I've been tutoring a 14-year-old high school student in Spanish recently, and her instructor has opted to break up the "final" exam into chunks and distribute it throughout the last several weeks of his year-long course. This has given my tutee the opportunity to take another look at the material in a moderated way, rather than cramming at the last hour. It's been really good for her. My questions goes off in another direction. How often do you think we should test students? Is every week too frequent? At what point does testing lose the gravity it can possess and become just one more assignment? Is there evidence to show that after having distributed testing throughout a course, that students still benefit from a final in which they are encouraged to pull it all together and forefront the sort of macro level aspects of the course?

Tania, thank you for this helpful post. I have a comment and a few questions for you. I've been tutoring a 14-year-old high school student in Spanish recently, and her instructor has opted to break up the "final" exam into chunks and distribute it throughout the last several weeks of his year-long course. This has given my tutee the opportunity to take another look at the material in a moderated way, rather than cramming at the last hour. It's been really good for her. My questions go off in another direction. How often do you think we should test students? Is every week too frequent? At what point does testing lose the gravity it can possess and become just one more assignment? Is there evidence to show that after having distributed testing throughout a course, that students still benefit from a final in which they are encouraged to pull it all together and forefront the sort of macro level aspects of the course?

Thanks, Anna, for your thoughtful comments and observations. You have brought up several interesting issues that add to the discussion of distributed practice, and I would like to briefly touch on each.
[1] How often should we test? Is once a week too much?
I personally don’t think that once a week is too often. There are already instructors on campus who include weekly quizzes in their syllabi. In my own courses, I usually have three quizzes across the quarter and then assign other activities on non-quiz weeks. That said, if we want learning retention beyond a ten-week course, research suggests that even longer intervals between testing would be better: the time between tests should be 10-20% of the desired retention interval.
[2] Does testing lose some of its gravity when there are so many tests? Is this a bad thing?
I actually don’t know of any studies that examine whether the importance of a test improves the learning that occurs before or during testing. This is probably a result of my ignorance rather than a hole in the literature. If someone else has some info, please feel free to chime in! I want to emphasize, however, that reducing the gravity of a test might also reduce test anxiety—a good thing. Furthermore, the literature shows that practice testing is most effective as a study technique when the tests have low stakes. This leads me to believe that it would be worth sacrificing some gravity to include additional exams.
[3] Is it still worth having a final where students need to ‘pull it all together?’
Students certainly do benefit from exercises that make them think about the big picture. These experiences can be in the form of a final, but they don’t have to be. Testing doesn’t have to be the only technique in our toolkit. Papers, research projects, presentations, group discussions — many activities can promote this kind of thinking, and they are less prone to cramming. Finally, this gives me an opportunity to emphasize something that wasn’t prominent in the original post: distributed exams can (and should) include old as well as new material. Testing content from different lectures and sections of the course in the same exam will encourage students to study these topics together, ‘planting the seeds’ for deeper understanding.
Thanks again for your comments!