Spacing study in distance learning

Does spacing out study time work for students learning online courses or is cramming the best option? We discuss our findings with Behind the Paper | 2 min 30 sec read

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Learning how to learn is a critical life skill. And in this unprecedented time when many cities and countries around the world are practicing physical distancing to curb the spread of the COVID-19 virus, forcing many schools to move from face-to-face instruction to online instruction, effective self-regulated learning — deciding when and how to study — has never been more important. While many education institutions are now being required to make the switch for the first time, the concept of distance or online learning is not new and has been a major growth area for both formal and informal instruction in situations where people are expected to continue their own learning to develop the skills and knowledge needed for their jobs. 

Yet, being able to self-regulate effectively is not easy and learners often end up doing things that circumvent real, better sustained learning. One of the most robust findings in cognitive psychology research on learning is that distributing out one’s study leads to better long-term retention compared to massing it. In other words, if a student were to devote 10 hours of study to a particular topic, it is better to spread those hours out across multiple shorter learning sessions than to attempt all study in only one or two longer learning sessions. 

The question is do students use this powerful approach when free to organise their own study and do they benefit from it? Using data from a psychology Massive Online Open Course (MOOC), our study “Self-regulated spacing in a massive open online course is related to better learning” analysed clickstream data to estimate students’ study behaviours, and examined how their spacing behaviour was related to performance on each of 11 end-of-unit quizzes (even when accounting for their total time spent studying, their prior knowledge was measured by a pre-test, and the retention interval between completing study and taking the quiz).

Using this powerful learning analytics approach and a large educational dataset, my colleagues, Faria Sana, Veronica Yan and I found higher performing students (those who did better on the cumulative final exam) were more likely than lower performing students to have spaced their study of the units. However, the benefit of spacing was strongest for lower-performing students and those who did not engage in practice activities. These findings suggest that spaced study might work to reduce performance differences between students and promote good learning.

Students are often tempted to “knock study out” in a short time, especially with asynchronous learning options (offered by many online courses). Why take weeks to learn something when you can cram the same amount of information into a few days? With more and more education going online — by option or necessity — it is good to see that some students can make effective use of approaches that improve learning. However, our findings also highlight the need for supporting students' awareness of how to organise their study time to promote learning, especially among those who are under-performing or who might not have time to engage with all the learning materials. 

Go to the profile of Paulo Carvalho

Paulo Carvalho

Research Scientist, Carnegie Mellon University

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