Learn How to Study Using... Spaced Practice

Learn How to Study Using... Spaced Practice

By: Yana Weinstein & Megan Smith

This is the third post in a series designed to help students learn how to study effectively. You can find the first post here and the second post here. The purpose is to provide students with a resource that can help them take charge of their own learning. Today’s post is about spaced practice – that is, spacing out studying over time instead of cramming right before an exam.

What is spaced practice?

Spaced practice is the exact opposite of cramming. When you cram, you study for a long, intense period of time close to an exam. When you space your learning, you take that same amount of study time, and spread it out across a much longer period of time. Doing it this way, that same amount of study time will produce more long-lasting learning. For example, five hours spread out over two weeks is better than the same five hours right before the exam.

But spacing your learning requires advance planning. If you have the summer off, then now is the best time to plan for spaced practice in the Fall.

How should you space your learning?

  • Start planning early – the beginning of the semester, or even earlier. Set aside a bit of time every day, just for studying, even if your exams are months away. This may seem strange at first, if you are used to cramming right before an exam; but it’s just a new habit that you will get used to if you persevere.

  • Review information from each class, but not immediately after class. A good way to do this is to reserve some time one day after each of your classes meet. For example, if you have classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you might review the information on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday respectively for each of those classes.

  • Spacing your learning doesn’t mean you won’t be studying at all right before the exam. You can still study up until the exam – but instead of only studying then, spread it out so that you’re studying days and weeks before the exam as well. You’ll spend less time and learn more, in the short-term and in the long-term.

What should you do during these short learning sessions?

It’s important that you don’t just sit down and re-read your notes. Instead, you should use effective learning strategies such as retrieval practice or elaboration.

After you study information from the most recent class, make sure to go back and study important older information to keep it fresh.

This may seem difficult and you may forget some information from day to day, but this is actually a good thing! You need to forget a little bit in order to benefit from spaced practice – see this guest post for an explanation.

Create small spaces (e.g., a few days) between your study sessions, and do a little bit at a time, so that it adds up!

“But, but…cramming works!”

If you’re reading this and you’re skeptical because cramming has worked just fine for you in the past, here’s why. Cramming can, indeed, do exactly what it suggests – cram information into your mind right before an exam. However, there are at least three really big problems with this.

  1. First, cramming actually takes more time. Think about it: if you learn more in the same amount of time spaced out (e.g., 5 hours in 1-hour increments compared to one 5-hour cram session), then you have to spend more time during the cramming session to get to the same level of learning.

  2. Second, as quickly as you learned that information, you will then also forget it. You may do fine on the test, but all that extra time you spent during cramming? It will all have been wasted. If you had spaced your learning, you would forget much less after the test. No matter what you are learning – science, math, a foreign language – future learning will depend on previous learning. It is therefore very inefficient to forget everything you learned for one test, only to have to re-learn it again later along with new, more complicated information! This also applies to future classes, where it might be helpful to retain knowledge from a previous class.

  3. Another reason why cramming is a bad idea is that it inevitably replaces sleep, which is very important for learning and also for your mental and physical health more generally. So, resolve to form a healthy habit today and plan to space your learning!