Distributed Learning vs. Massed Learning: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Studying and Learning
  • 0:48 What Is Massed Practice?
  • 1:26 What Is Distributed Practice?
  • 2:03 Study-Phase Retrieval Theory
  • 3:40 How to Study
  • 4:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Studying is an important part of learning, but there are different approaches to it. In this lesson, we are going to explore distributed and massed practices, and see how each impacts your ability to learn.

Studying and Learning

How do you study? Do you review your notes every day, or do you cram all at once right before a test? This is a question every student has to face, and how you answer it can actually have some pretty big impacts on your academic career.

While the concept of studying sounds commonplace, many psychologists have actually dedicated their careers to exploring the ways that we learn and retain information. Yes, they spend their lives studying the process of studying. Now how do you study for that? In this lesson, we'll look at two approaches to studying, which are massed practice and distributed practice, as well as how they work and can benefit or hurt you as a learner.

What Is Massed Practice?

Researchers tell us that there are two main ways that students study. The first is called massed practice, which describes studying that is done less frequently, but for large periods of time. Essentially, this is the scholarly term for cramming.

While massed practice may feel efficient, and is capable of helping a student pass an exam, it is not a great long-term solution. Information memorized this way is very likely to be forgotten once the exam is over. So, if you're planning to ever use this information again, in your career for example, then massed practice is not a good study plan.

What Is Distributed Practice?

The opposite of massed practice is the learning system called distributed practice. While massed practice involves studying the material in mass, distributed practice describes a more spaced-out method, where you study in intervals over time.

Instead of studying all of the material for hours the night before an exam, try studying the material for one hour a day. Students who rely on distributed practice are much more likely to retain the information beyond the date of the exam, which can help with future classes and with their careers. Overall, distributed practice correlates to a much higher academic success rate.

Study-Phase Retrieval Theory

So, why is distributed practice actually better than massed practice? Studies have shown time and again that long-term memory and retention are benefited from the constant action of forcing your brain to retrieve information.

Whenever your brain comes across something it has already learned, the brain attempts to retrieve that information. If it is able to do so, then the information becomes more strongly ingrained and easier to retrieve the next time you need it. We call this the study-phase retrieval theory.

In massed practice, you learn the material, forget about it until right before the exam, and then you re-learn it all at once. You are only forcing your mind to recall the information once. With distributed practice, you develop a consistent routine of memory retrieval, teaching your mind to quickly and automatically recall specific information.

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