Spreading out learning over time is one of the most effective strategies.
So-called ‘distributed practice’ means breaking up learning into short sessions.
People learn better when they learn in these short sessions spread over a long period of time.
The reverse — cramming in a short space of time — doesn’t work that well.
Despite this, distributed practice is very infrequently used by students and may not be highlighted as a top strategy to them by teachers.
Instead, students tend to use highly inefficient methods such as highlighting, summarising, underlining and re-reading.
One technique that is effective — which students do sometimes use — is testing.
Professor John Dunlosky, one of the study’s authors, said:
“I was shocked that some strategies that students use a lot — such as rereading and highlighting — seem to provide minimal benefits to their learning and performance.
By just replacing rereading with delayed retrieval practice, students would benefit.”
Professor Dunlosky continued:
“These strategies are largely overlooked in the educational psychology textbooks that beginning teachers read, so they don’t get a good introduction to them or how to use them while teaching.”
The frightening thing is that we have known about the power of distributed practice for over a hundred years, and yet people continue to study by cramming.
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest (Dunlosky et al., 2013).
→ Try one of PsyBlog’s ebooks, all written by Dr Jeremy Dean:
Math problems image from Shutterstock