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. Two of these types are 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, do a few together, then you would have your students do it themselves (see the I Do – We Do – You Do model). You often ask them to do quite a few practice problems to help your students cement the steps in their minds.
When these practice problems are bunched together, such as within a single lesson or small number of consecutive lessons your students are undertaking massed practice.
Massed practice is quite common in many classrooms. We often plan to teach content in topic based blocks. Yet, it is not the most effective way of helping your students to learn. But why?
The Forgetting Curve
German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found that after learning new information, we rapidly forget that information followed by a more gradual loss over time. This can be shown visually as the forgetting curve. Information learned through massed practice is subject to this forgetting curve.
More recent research has shown that we can accurately predict the changing rate of forgetting using a precise mathematical function.
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:
Over several sessions
With sessions spread out over time
Therefore, distributed practice is not the same as reviewing topic one on Monday, topic 2 on Tuesday etc. as the topics are changing.
Distributed practice also involves no more work than massed practice.
No Extra Work
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.
Practice Not Rereading
It is important to note that distributed practice must include practice, not just rereading or reviewing notes. Research shows that practice is far more effective at helping students to remember what they have learned.
Distributed Practice Vs Massed Practice
Research shows that distributed practice has far more impact on your students’ learning than 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 as follows.
Massed Practice vs Distributed Practice in a Nutshell
Distributed practice has 3 core aspects:
Spread Over Time
Practice sessions should be spaced between 10-20% of the total time before the summative assessment.
Sadly, massed practice is still far more prevalent than distributed practice in schools.