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).
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
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