Spaced Practice: Less Is More, Over Time

Reading time: 2
Less is More


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

Is it better to teach your students more, or less?

The research on spaced practice suggests that retention is significantly improved when students are given a number of practice problems relating to a topic and distributed across a period of time.

In a paper published in 2006, ‘The effects of overlearning and distributed practice on the retention of mathematics knowledge’ (Rohrer & Taylor 2006), investigates the benefits of spaced practice.

“Forgetting is particularly common for knowledge acquired in school, and much of this material is lost within days or weeks of learning.”

The challenge for all teachers is a) how do we share information b) get students to remember it and c) regularly quiz them on this knowledge to help long-term retention. This challenge is hard enough with one pupil.

Now, let’s add 30 pupils.

We can see why teaching is such a complex business.

What is spaced practice?

Spaced practice spreads lessons and retrieval opportunities out over time. “When practice is distributed or spaced, a given amount of practice is divided across multiple sessions and not massed into one session.”

This means when deliberate practice in the lesson is distributed, the interval between the retrieval practice (quiz) should be spaced out between the most recent lesson. The research is clear on this – teaching in this way supports long-term retention.

For example, if a number of facts are studied on Monday and Thursday and tested on a Friday, the retention interval (RI) equals one day. Note, the researchers state that “at very brief retention intervals, however, spaced practice may be no better or even worse than massed practice” (i.e. cramming).

Most importantly, your retrieval practice exercises are low stakes – they are not graded.

Experiment 1

In this research, two experiments are evaluated over one and four week periods.

In the first, the research examined the benefit of distributing problems across two sessions rather than teaching the same problems into one lesson.

This research found that a longer retention interval of four weeks was used with a distribution of 10 practice problems across two sessions found to be far more useful than the massing of all 10 problems in the same session.

After a one-week retention interval, there was no reliable difference between the two strategies among students one week after learning. This result is “consistent with previous findings demonstrating no spacing effect.”

However, after four weeks suggests that long-term retention is better achieved by distributing practice problems across sessions.

Experiment 2

The second experiment “assessed the effect of overlearning on retention by varying the number of practice problems within a single session.”

The research found that increasing the number of practice problems in one or four-week lessons had virtually no effect on outcomes or retention.

Conclusion, plus a resource

Put simply, “the extra effort devoted to additional problems produced no observable benefit, whereas the distribution of a given number of number of practice problems produced benefits without any extra effort.”

This free 10-page PDF file is to support teachers to develop transfer of learning; the application of rules, concepts and facts, or information in new situations. This resource offers teachers a template to adapt to help shape curriculum thinking, planning and teaching.

Increasing Transfer of Knowledge

Please do read the original research paper and evaluate your own thinking on the research methods and the findings.

Overlearning or too much practice does not support long-term retention. So, don’t waste your time cramming curriculum content into specific lessons or weeks; view the overall process of practice and quizzing as an academic year-long process.


2 thoughts on “Spaced Practice: Less Is More, Over Time

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.