Spaced learning vs massed practice and their classroom application

Spaced learning

Spaced learning – regular periods of learning spaced out by rest periods such as piano lessons every few days for a year. Also known as disturbed learning.

Picture of a classroom with multiple education support workers.

Spaced learning (also known as disturbed practice) refers to the theory that practising at regular intervals is more effective that practising all at once.i For example, practising to ride a bike for ten minutes per day over 10 days (100 minutes) is more effective that practising for 100 minutes non-stop.

Similarly, consider a person learning to surf. They will be more knowledgeable and competent from surfing for 2 hours per week for 10 weeks (20 hours), rather than surfing for 20 hours over a single weekend. There are several reasons for why this is the case:

  • Encoding variability theory – learning over time is more likely to include a larger variety of contexts (such as weather, wave height, locations and observations).
  • Study-phase retrieval theory – memory pathways are improved with each new learning opportunity due to the repeated retrieval of memories from long-term memory.
  • Consolidation theory – the more practice (known by the technical term ‘rehearsal’) that occurs, the more likely it is that the learning will be committed to long-term memory. Physically, the brain changes to allow this to happen.ii Synapses (which are the pathways that memories travel along) become stronger and more permanent with each recall and use. The stronger they get, the easier they are to access on the next occasion. However, the brain does not just simply strengthen existing synapses: new synapses are created, and existing synapses are reorganised to become more efficient. This results in an ability to recall information faster and to solve more challenging problems. Each opportunity to practise consolidates learning and further commits the learning to long-term memory. A long interruption to learning (such as several months or years) reduces these physical changes to the brain, but it does not reverse them completely.

For teachers, the most important take-out is that learning spaced out over time is an effective teaching strategy. Teachers can take advantage of spaced learning by planning multiple revision points throughout a program. For example, students in a science class should briefly revisit previous topics on a regular basis, particularly in the lead-up to exams. Similarly, teachers concerned with reading and writing can revisit high- incidence words (common words) on a weekly basis. By using spaced learning, teachers ensure that previous learning is not forgotten and that it is committed to long-term memory. With each practise, the brain’s synapses multiply, strengthen and reorganise.

Teachers can take advantage of spaced learning by planning multiple revision points throughout a program.

Massed practice

Massed practice – the opposite of spaced learning. It involves repetitive and uninterrupted practise of a skill-based activity over many hours.

Teacher aide using massed practice to support the learning of a single student.

Massed practice is the opposite of spaced learning. With spaced learning, students practise an activity at regular intervals over a long period of time. However, with massed practice, students practise an activity numerous times with practically no breaks. Cramming is an example of massed practice. While not as effective as spaced learning, massed practice does have some advantages:

  • Massed practice may be effective for tasks that have clearly defined goals and no need to learn beyond that goal.
  • Sometimes massed practice is the only option. For example, if you take up woodwork as a new hobby and enrol in a 3-day course and make 4 pieces of furniture. While it may be better to make these pieces over time, you might only have 3 days off work.
  • Massed practice can be used when you don’t expect to use the skill or knowledge again in the future and therefore don’t care if it’s eventually forgotten. For example, if you need to learn as much as possible about a health issue before an operation. Your goal might not be to commit the information to long-term memory as you are not expecting to have the operation again.

Hint: massed practice can be used initially to achieve a certain level of skill. It can then be followed by spaced learning to encourage long-term, continual improvement and retention.

Foot notes:

  1. Namaziandost, E., Mehdi, N., Rahimi, E.F., Hossein Keshmirshekan, M., de Dios Martínez Agudo, J. (2019). "The Impacts of Spaced and Massed Distribution Instruction on EFL Learners’ Vocabulary Learning." Cogent Education, 6 (1).
  2. This information has been generalised for ease of understanding. For more advanced reading, see articles such as Clopath, C. (2012). Synaptic consolidation: an approach to long-term learning. Cognitive neurodynamics, 6(3), 251–257. doi: 10.1007/s11571-011-9177-6.

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