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Introduction

Spaced practice is a learning technique wherein a learner studies a given topic over an extended period so that in the long run, the information gets stored in the long-term memory.

Building good study habits is essential because it helps students become better learners. While it’s necessary to prepare for exams well and have high scores, it’s more important that learners develop and expand their learning capacity. It’s a complex process that involves building a healthy daily routine and deploying the necessary strategies to focus, acquire information and retain that information.

Effective studying has a lot to do with content (the material to be studied) and the time spent learning it. One way to do that is through a process called spaced learning.

Related reading: How to Effectively Use Retrieval Practice to Improve Your Learning

How it Works 

Spaced practice is a process that involves planning and following a regular schedule. It is the exact opposite of cramming. Spaced practice means taking that same amount of time and spreading it out over a span of a week or a couple of weeks.

To do this, students have to plan ahead, like months before the start of the school year. The rationale behind starting early is that students have to get used to this pace so that they already have this routine in place by the time the school year starts. Take advantage of the syllabus/course outline that teachers provide at the start of the semester, then make a study plan.

When using spaced practice, students will still study intensely on the weeks leading up to the exam, but it won’t have to be as intense as a 6-hour all-night study marathon. By then, all the information is properly stored in the long-term memory. This means that on the days before the exam, students will be spending most of their study time reading through notes, going over material that they have difficulty with, and taking practice tests. That time will be devoted to exam preparation.

Using spaced study as a strategy is definitely more sustainable and better for student’s mental and physical health. When students study a little bit over a long period, they give their body and their brain sufficient time to recover from that activity. Studying may involve a lot of sitting down, but the brain is active throughout the study session.

Rest is important because as students let the information simmer, it is also the time when the brain forms connections, builds understanding, which is necessary for critical and higher-order thinking.

With continuous practice, learners will become better at remembering. It may be a little challenging at first to memorize new terms and key concepts. Still, as students keep retrieving this information, the information will come out more naturally and easily.

Sample Learning Schedule:

Day 1: Class. New information is introduced. Students take notes, read chapters and listen to lectures.
Following day: Review what was discussed on Day 1.
After 3 days: Review
After 1 week: Review
After 2 weeks: Review

What to do during a study session:
• Always review older material first.
• Incorporate it with new information by making connections between the chapter you’re currently studying and the one before that. In real life, students are studying multiple chapters in 1 semester. When reviewing, find a way to incorporate even the topics from the start of the semester
• Create summaries and use these when reviewing

A Simple Yet Effective Approach 

The spaced practice seems simple enough, especially when it’s discussed in terms of coming up with a study schedule and following it. However, this simple approach can open doors for a better learning experience and the formation of good habits.

Since learning sessions are spread out, one hour may not seem to be enough if any substantial learning can take place.

Retrieve, Don’t Review

How a student spends “review” sessions plays an important role in the process of learning. When people think about reviewing, the things that come to mind are going through notes and going through parts of a chapter they highlighted. This is technically not a bad strategy, but it’s not the best technique either.

Reviewing entails pushing information into the brain, whereas retrieving has to do will pulling information out from memory. A person may not be able to remember all the details perfectly, but this is precisely what we want. Pulling information out reveals gaps and holes, which the brain then attempts to “fill in.” It’s a little more mentally exhausting, but it can be rewarding if done repeatedly.

Many studies have also discussed the benefits of adequate spacing between learning sessions, especially when preparing for exams. In addition, having that retention interval optimizes learning through retrieval.

Spaced practice is best used in conjunction with another learning method, like retrieval practice. For example, use flashcards, quiz yourself and your friends, do practice tests—these are some techniques to do to help keep the information “fresh.”

Forget it, Seriously

Cognitive psychology studies have discussed how easy it is to forget information from the time it is acquired. It happens so quickly, which is exactly why people put so many alarms and reminders on smartphones and planners.

Studies have suggested that when people forget information, it’s not because the information is lost; it’s because the brain can’t retrieve that memory. It’s also because that information is just lingering in the short-term memory.

When it comes to studying, forgetting seems counterintuitive. However, giving that short break to forget the information gives way to another facet of learning, which is retrieving. 

This is precisely what the brain needs to learn to do and be good at. It almost seems paradoxical, but you are training yourself to forget to develop the skill of retrieving and remembering.

Forgetting is an integral part of this learning technique because students and, in the process, train their brains to retrieve information. Unlike what fictional tv series will tell you, learning or reading something once isn’t enough to understand and retain that information. Students need to constantly revisit, review, and practice their learnings continuously to make it stick.  

Benefits 

The act of using spaced practice seems simple enough to do. Still, it is tied with complex cognitive processes that are geared toward long-term learning and increasing the brain’s capacity to retain information. The minor adjustment of creating a study plan that prioritizes 45-minute study sessions done a couple of days a week is more helpful to the brain than having all-nighter cramming sessions the night before an exam.

Below are other benefits:

  • Spaced practice helps store information in long-term memory.
  • Develop the skill of long term retention
  • Formation of good habits by having well-paced study sessions
  • Keeps information fresh
  • Teaches students to be proactive
  • Students learn to focus.
  • Prevents burnout and exhaustion
  • Helps students remember and understand as opposed to just plain memorization
  • Spaced practice allows students to have time for everything—other subjects, personal plans, while not compromising the learning process.

Cramming Works… But Not Really

Cramming works only to the extent of preparing for an exam. However, it is not efficient. For example, you will devote six hours for two days, studying for the final exam for one subject.

While it might help you get through the exam the following day, you forget it all soon enough because all of that information is filed in your short-term memory. Thus, no authentic learning will take place.

Spaced practice helps students become better learners. For example, instead of studying six hours on the night before an exam, it’s better to have a one-hour learning session every day for two weeks before the exam. In this way, the information is slowly but gradually added into the long-term memory.

Another downside of cramming is the tendency to forego sleep and meals. Sleep and rest are necessary elements of learning. However, students also need to take care of their well-being too. What is the point of studying if, on the day of the exam (or worse, during the exam), a student gets get overwhelmed and anxious to the point of losing focus?

Final Thoughts 

Learning does not happen in one sitting. Like any good and healthy habit, it has to be done repeatedly over time at a steady pace. The best part about spaced practice is that it is easy to incorporate into a student’s daily schedule. It does not require special tools or tricks. Simple adjustments like these can make a world of difference in a student’s journey toward building good study habits.

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Patricia Alfonso

Patricia Alfonso is an educator and researcher who earned her master's degree in guidance and counseling from Ateneo de Manila. She specializes in developing school counseling programs for schools.

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