Distributed Practice vs Massed Practice

[a.k.a. Daily vs Cramming]

Introduction.  This is for students of any age and in any new learning situation. The focus of this document is whether to study new material many times over multiple days or weeks versus cramming all or most of the studying into the day before an exam.

What is distributed practice?  Distributed practice, in the current context, is studying the same content multiple times over several days and weeks. Thus, it is repeatedly studying the same content. More repetitions result in better learning especially over days and weeks. It substantially reduces the initial drop or forgetting that typically occurs rapidly within about 20-30 minutes and more substantially within about 24 hours.

What is massed practice?   In the current context, in a word – cramming.

What is overlearning?   Overlearning is learning beyond the point that one has learned the new material, thus beyond mastery. People retain material better, thus longer and more completely, after overlearning compared to initial mastery. The implication is that after you learn new material,  continue rehearsing it if you want to retain it much longer than usual. Thus, if you want to remember new information for future use beyond the next exam or beyond a course in which you are enrolled, then after you learn it to mastery, repeatedly review it many more times.

Who first studied and discovered this?  Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850 – 1909) was the first scientist to do experimental studies of memory and thinking. He published many of his famous studies in 1885. Before him, no one ever did this and many famous scientists and philosophers believed that no one could study memory experimentally.

Why is this important? [a.k.a. Is this relevant for me?]  This topic is important because unless you have photographic memory and can remember nearly everything after reading it once, you need to study according to a distributed practice schedule rather than massed practice known also as cramming.

Why do some or many people (e.g. students) cram? Some students:

• Believe that they can learn all they need by studying the day before.
• Do this because they believe they do not have time to study often.
• Are overloaded with excess courses, tasks, jobs, family obligations, and/or extra-curricular activities.
• Believe that cramming works for them sometimes. It probably does sometimes but it is very difficult to predict, and worse, if it does work sometimes then it is reinforced (i.e. rewarded) on a variable-ratio1  partial reinforcement schedule which is the most resistant to extinction – the most likely to persist despite repeatedly unsuccessful results. Fear failure.  “If I don’t study well, then if I do poorly, it won’t mean that I am not capable of doing much better. It will just mean I didn’t study properly.”
• Underachieve  -- Working and performing below one’s potential and abilities. This happens for students with learning disabilities and for gifted students, as well as those more within the normal range of abilities
• Don’t care enough about their grade.

Action Before Mood.  You might not be in the mood for studying (a.k.a. Many students sometimes (often or almost always2 ) are not in the mood3  for studying.  If you are not in the mood to study, start anyway. Action very often precedes motivation. Whatever you do, do something now. Instead of saying, “I’m not in the mood” start anywhere for a few minutes (e.g. 10-15 minutes).

Cramming anyway?   If you are going to cram anyway in spite of the cautions and warnings, then seek guidance. I am not going to provide much of this because, yes you know, I don’t approve, but realistically, it might happen! However, most of the new information will probably be gone in less than 24 hours, and probably much sooner. So, cramming for a quiz probably will not help with the later exam. See websites in Resources. Yes, I intentionally made the print this damn small.


test taking tips

Underachievement for students with LD:

cramming 3

Fry, Ron (2005). How to Study (6th Edition). Clifton Park,NY: Thomson/Delmar Learning.

1 A variable ratio schedule provide reinforcement after a random numbers of responses often with a preset average.
2 Reality Check: I would add that if you are usually or always not in the mood for studying, then perhaps you should not be in college or, for that matter, doing anything that requires a lot of preparation and studying.
3 This can occur for various reasons including being depressed, feeling ill, sleep deprived, unusually busy schedule,  atypical or emergency events in your life, or other major disruptions in your life. If depressed or sleep deprived, get help -- soon.