3 Reasons Distributed Practice Works Better Than Mass Practice

Distributed Practice

Distributed Practice Works Better Than Mass Practice

Distributed and Mass practice are two common studying techniques that you likely use without knowing it. If you’re not careful, procrastination and bad habits can unwillingly force you into long mass practice sessions. While mass practice has its benefits, distributed practice encourages an in-depth understanding that leads to increased academic performance. The following article looks at the differences between the two and why you should make distributed practice a part of your routine.

What Is Distributed Practice?

  • Distributed practice is a learning strategy that involves breaking up studying into multiple sessions spaced out over time.
  • Mass practice is another technique that involves using long study or practice sessions to encourage learning.
  • While both techniques have their benefits, distributed practice is more likely to result in improved academic performance.

A 2014 study from York University found that “Students who reviewed class notes one week after initial learning did better by one half-letter grade on a final test, compared to students who reviewed their notes one day after initial learning.” Here’s why that effect occurs:

1. Distributed Practice Primes Your Memory

Discovered by psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885, the spacing effect is one of the main reasons students perform better when they engage in distributed practice. Through his research, Ebbinghaus found 80% of people forget new information within 24 hours. The spacing effect refers to the increased information retention humans experience when spacing out review sessions of the same information.

Distributed practice works by priming your brain to recall and understand information. Priming is the initial exposure to a stimulus that sets a foundation for your brain to build on. Priming your brain with information is similar to applying primer before painting a wall: the base layer (initial exposure) makes it easier for the paint and learning to stick.

2. Mass Practice Is Great For Basic Skills

While distributed practice increases information retention, mass practice is still a useful technique to have in your arsenal. Mass practice occurs when you continuously repeat an action or review information without taking the time for a break. Mass practice is excellent for memorization or physical activities as the repetitions in a small time frame will help you focus on technique.

As the level of difficulty in your education increases, you’ll find there are fewer opportunities to use mass practice. Mass practice is great for quick memorization but fails to help students internalize the underlying meanings behind the information that they’re studying.

Mass practice is a technique you can use as a small part of your study strategy; you can mass practice one aspect of the subject that you need to remember for a test. However, distributed practice will ensure the information remains a part of your intelligence, even after the test is over.

3. Breaking Up Study Sessions Activates Contextual Memory

Another reason distributed practice works so well is because it activates your contextual memory. Reviewing the same information in different environments (at home, at the library, at a coffeeshop, etc.) helps your brain create more contextual cues that it can use to recall information. A 2008 article published in Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press found that “Memories are automatically reactivated when subjects return to an original learning context, where updating by incorporating new contents can occur.”

Distributed practice is a great way to take your learning beyond simple recollection. The rest time in-between sessions is a key factor that helps your brain develop contextual cues. It forces you to engage in complex thinking instead of trying to retrieve information from your short term memory in a massed practice session.


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