"Little and Often": the Distributed Practice Effect


The act of spending hours upon hours of studying – is a very common behaviour among students. And honestly, student life would not be the same without it.

I’ve done it. You have done it. Your friends have too. Your parents. Your teachers. That woman behind the checkout counter in Pak ‘N Save. Heck, probably even Kim Kardashian.

When we cram for an exam or a test, we really believe that it’ll help do better on a test. We think that the longer we spend reading or studying, the more information we are able to encode into our minds.

But in truth, cramming actually does more bad than good.

Try imagining pouring water over an already-soaked sponge. Obviously more water ends up being wasted instead of absorbed since the sponge is already storing too much liquid. The human memory works roughly the same way. When we try to study a lot of content for extended periods of time, ultimately our brain gets to point that it can no longer effectively store information, resulting for us to more likely forget than remember what we’ve read.

On top of that, cramming usually goes hand to hand with not getting enough sleep. This means we walk in to the exam room mentally and physically exhausted which, as you can imagine, can only mean bad news.

So what is another way to study other than reading your notes and sitting behind a desk for hours until you can’t feel your legs?

In 1885, German psychologist Herman Ebbinghaus discovered that distributing a number of learning sessions over a period of time is better for your memory than studying once for the same amount of time. This is called “the distributed practice effect” and it is one of the most researched memory-related topics in psychology.

Think about it this way: you will remember more information (and most probably do better in an exam) if you study your course material in three 20-minute study sessions spread across a week than if you study for an hour straight the night before your exam.

In an experiment, a group of students who used distributed practice when studying got higher scores for their Algebra test than another group who did a “massed practice” – or what we non-scientists refer to as cramming.

But what does make distributed practice effective?

When you spread study sessions across a period of time, say a week or a month, you are more likely to think about what you’ve learned in between sessions. Recalling information over and over in your head, especially if it’s just in little chunks, will make it harder to forget. Also when you think about of the material you’ve learned and remembered, you also tend to notice the stuff you might have missed and forgotten. And so in your next study session, you make plans to fill in those gaps.

Having breaks in between learning also makes sure that your brain gets enough rest. If you think back to the “wet sponge = brain” analogy, think of breaks as when the water gets squeezed out of the sponge, allowing for additional water to get absorbed.

Here’s a question: How many times have you put off studying or doing homework thinking: “It will take me an entire hour to finish everything.”? A lot I bet. But how does “studying for 30 minutes during lunch and then another 30 minutes after classes” sound? Does it sound less tiring? Less daunting? Does it seem to be more manageable?

Distributed practice cuts your workload into small chunks making them easier to do and to keep track of. It can even prevent you from procrastinating! Double win!

Distributing your study sessions may sound like it requires a lot of planning and effort. But what you can do is make it easier and more rewarding by following these tips:

  • During sessions, set up an alarm to make sure you only study for about 15 to 20 minutes or so. Once the alarm goes off, drop whatever it is you’re doing. Pick up where you left off the next session you’ve set up.
  • If you’re feeling motivated and would like to continue doing your work, you can use the “Pomodoro technique”. Apps like the “Pomodoro Timer”, “Pomodroido”, or “Pomodoro Challenge Timer” can be really useful. Alternatively you can use http://tomato-timer.com/ if you’re using a computer for your sessions. Even though you get to have quick breaks in between, make sure you do not push yourself into doing too many sessions one after the other. If you feel like you are getting tired or if you’re starting to have trouble concentrating, it’s probably a good time to call it a day.
  • Set up a progress chart where you can tally how many sessions you have done. Doing so will help you see and appreciate how much studying you have done in total.
  • After every session treat yourself with your favourite chocolate bar or by watching your favourite TV show. 🙂