As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. You should be giving your students time to practice doing the things you have taught them to do in class. But there are different types of practice, and they are not all equally effective. These include massed practice and distributed practice.
Imagine you are teaching a class how to find the volume of a rectangular prism. You would typically show your students how to do it. Then you would have your students do it themselves. You often ask them to do quite a few practice problems to help your students cement the steps in their minds.
This is known as massed practice, as there is no gap between practice sessions.
You may also give them a few practice questions for homework. This is arguably still massed practice, as there is only a small gap between practice sessions. At best, it is a weak form of distributed practice.
Massed practice is quite common in many classrooms. Yet, it is not the most effective way of helping your students to learn.
(also known as Spaced Practice)
Distributed practice involves students practising something over several sessions spaced out over time. This is quite different to massed practice, where the practice occurs in one intensive block.
With spaced practice, you may show your students how to find the volume of a rectangular prism on a Monday. Then they complete practice problems:
- In class, straight away
- For homework Tuesday night
- In class on Wednesday
- For homework on Thursday night
- In class on Friday
- For homework the following Tuesday night
Practising the Same Thing Over Time
Distributed practice involves practising the same thing:
Distributed practice is not reviewing chapter 1 on Monday, chapter 2 Tuesday etc.
The Same Amount of Work
Distributed practice also involves no more work than massed practice.
For example, one Year 7 Mathematics textbook may have 18 practice questions that involve finding the volume of a prism.
Using massed practice, students would complete all 18 questions on the one day.
In the above example of 6 distributed practice sessions, students may complete 3 questions per session.
Distributed Practice Vs Massed Practice
On average, students who have undertaken distributed practice achieved 15% higher than students who had only completed massed practice. This is why this form of practice is both an evidence-based and a high-impact teaching strategy.
How to Distribute Practice
So we know that distributing practice sessions over time helps students to remember more. But how should you go about using this knowledge in your classroom?
You need to consider how long you want your students to remember what you have taught them. Ideally, you want them to learn things forever. But I am talking about how long before they are formally assessed.
Continuing the above example, finding the volume of a prism may be part of a 3-week Mathematics unit on Measurement. If you introduced it at the start of the unit, you would want students to remember how to do it for at least 20 days.
The amount of spacing between practice sessions is ideally 10-20% of 20 days, or a session every 2-4 days. So a better distribution of practice sessions would be:
Monday – show your students how to do it and have them complete 3 practice problems in class
Wednesday – 3 more practice problems in class
Friday – 3 practice problems in class
Monday – 2 practice problems for homework
Thursday – 3 practice problems in class
Monday – 2 practice problems in class
Wednesday – 2 practice problems for homework
Friday – Test
The Spacing Principle More Broadly
The spacing principle that underpins distributed practice also underpins other learning activities. Students benefit from distributing their study of the same material – no matter what such studying involves.
Massed Practice vs Distributed Practice in a Nutshell
Distributed practice is more effective than massed practice.
The ideal length between practice sessions varies. And, it does so according to the amount of time students need to remember what you have taught them.
Sadly, massed practice is still far more prevalent than distributed practice. We tend to teach one thing and move onto the next. And, we don’t give our students enough spaced practice to cement new things within their long-term memories.
Shaun Killian is an experienced teacher and principal with a passion for helping students to excel. He believes that assisting teachers to adopt evidence-based education is the best way to make this happen. Shaun is committed to bringing you practical advice based on solid research.