MASSED Vs SPACED LEARNING
Most of us would like to have a better memory. The ability to remember things accurately and effortlessly would make us more efficient in our daily lives, and it would make us more successful in our work. The most obvious requirement for learning something new is practice. One basic question which applies to most learning situations is whether it is better to do the learning in one large "cramming" session. These two approaches are known as "massed" and "spaced" learning, respectively, and they are illustrated in Figure 1.1,
Figure 1.1 Massed and Spaced learning sessions
It has generally been found that spaced learning is more efficient than massed learning. This was first demonstrated more than a century ago by Ebbinghaus (1885), who found that spaced learning sessions produced higher retrieval scores than massed learning sessions, when the total time spent learning was kept constant for both learning conditions. Ebbinghaus used lists of nonsense syllables as his test material, but the general superiority of spaced over massed learning has been confirmed by many subsequent studies using various different types of test material, such as learning lists of words (Dempster, 1987), sentences (Rothkopf & Coke, 1963) and text passages (Reder & Anderson, 1982). Spaced learning has also generally proved to be better than massed learning when learning motor skills, such as learning pursuit rotor skills (Bourne & Archer, 1956) and learning keyboard skills (Baddeley & Longman, 1978).
Most early studies of spaced learning involved the use of uniformly spaced learning sessions. However, Landauer and Bjork (1978) found that learning is often more efficient if the time interval between retrieval sessions is steadily increased for successive sessions. This strategy is known as "expanding retrieval practice".
Although spaced learning has been consistently found to be superior to massed learning over the long term, it has been found that during a learning session (and for a short time afterwards) massed learning can actually produce better retrieval than spaced learning, and the advantage of spaced learning only really becomes apparent with longer retrieval intervals (Glenberg & Lehman, 1980).
Although it has been demonstrated that spaced learning sessions are usually more effective than massed learning sessions, in real-life settings this advantage may sometimes be compromised by practical considerations. A further problem is that spaced learning obviously requires more time overall (i.e. total time including rest breaks) than massed learning, and therefore may not represent the most efficient use of that time unless the rest breaks can be used for something worthwhile. Because spaced learning can create practical problems of this kind, there is no clear agreement about its value in a real-life learning setting such as a school classroom. Dempster (1988) suggests that teachers should make use of the spaced learning principle, whereas spaced learning is not really practicable in a classroom setting, since the periodic interruption of learning session can be inconvenient and can make learning less pleasant. On balance it can be argued that spaced learning is probably the best option for most simple learning tasks so long as we fit the sessions around our other activities, but it may not be practicable in some settings such as the school classroom.
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