The Science and Art of Distributed Practice — A New and Better Way to Learn

Many people enjoy learning — it is exciting to gain new knowledge and skills. Yet, learning is difficult; it takes time and energy, and even when one is enrolled in high-quality online short courses led by world-renowned experts, information can slip through the cracks of one’s memory.

Fortunately, research has found a better way to learn. A method called distributed practice has been shown to be among the best ways for anyone to accrue new knowledge and skill efficiently and affordably. Those eager to make the most of their online courses should learn more about the science and art of distributed practice.

How Does Distributed Practice Work?

Distributed practice functions as the name indicates: Students are introduced to learning material, and after a certain period of time, they practice that material again. According to the distributed practice model, study sessions should be short in duration and be interspaced by increasingly longer periods of time, to continue to test and stretch students’ ability to retain information.

The details of distributed practice depend largely on the complexity of the content and the goal of learning. More difficult subjects will demand a greater number of longer learning sessions for students to achieve a baseline of understanding. Then, students will likely need to revisit difficult information more frequently, at least initially, than might be required of more intuitive concepts.

Generally, experts advocate for a gap between learning sessions that is between 10 and 30 percent of the retention interval, or the length of time that students hope to remember information. For example, students who have an exam in a month should aim to be able to retain material for about six days. Students might not be able to start with such a large interval between study sessions, but they should work up to that length of time or more.

Perhaps the most important component of distributed practice is the “practice” element. Study sessions in this model do not involve the passive absorption of material; students who engage in distributed practice must actively engage with their notes and course materials to improve comprehension. Reading and rereading do not constitute practice, as they do not compel the brain to remember concepts and details. A few better tactics for practicing material during study sessions include:

Quizzing. Using study materials, to include study guides provided by instructors, students can ask themselves questions regarding important course concepts. Students should strive to write down complete answers, which will allow them to probe their memory for as many pertinent details as possible.

Teaching. Students can play teacher, explaining course concepts out loud as though instructing a classroom of eager learners. If talking to no one feels uncomfortable, students might ask friends or family members to sit in on study sessions. Teaching is an effective learning method because it forces students to break down difficult materials into comprehensible units explained in words they know and understand.

Applying. As soon as they gain access to certain information, students should begin applying what they have learned to their real life, anchoring nebulous course concepts to real-world issues they regularly experience. This can be especially lucrative for professionals, who can directly improve their career success from the field-related courses they take.

Why Does Distributed Practice Work?

The effectiveness of distributed practice has prompted concerted research from psychologists and neurobiologists, who are all but desperate to learn more about how the brain creates and stores information. Research on distributed practice has uncovered that creating an interval between study sessions fosters independence between a student’s memory of information and the course materials that student utilizes to learn. Thus, a student becomes more capable of recalling that information freely, without relying upon triggers within their notes or lectures. Thanks to distributed practice, a student can truly master the knowledge and skills available to them in their courses — and in a way that can fit more effortlessly into schedules already packed with work and life.

Learning is not easy, even for those who enjoy it. Fortunately, tried and true strategies like distributed learning can manage the daunting task of acquiring more knowledge and skill.

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