A new study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology sheds light on the advantages of spaced learning in schools — at least for mathematics. Grade 7 students who practiced math problems during sessions that were spaced one week apart performed substantially better on a future test than students who practiced the same problems in one larger session. Students who participated in the spaced sessions were also significantly better at predicting their test scores.
While current math textbooks require teachers to cover specific concepts within a relatively short time period, many studies have demonstrated that spaced learning is a more effective learning method. Psychologists refer to this as the “spacing effect”, maintaining that when information is presented over sessions that are spaced apart in time, students are better able to recall the material later.
William G. Emeny and his team wanted to explore this effect among Grade 7 math students, while also investigating how spaced practice might affect students’ predictions of their test scores. The researchers proposed that practicing the material over spaced out sessions should remind students that they are susceptible to forgetting information over time, thus preventing overconfidence and improving the accuracy of their test predictions. This is important because overconfidence can cause students to abandon future study sessions under the misconception that they have mastered the material.
Emeny and his colleagues conducted two nearly identical experiments among two samples of Grade 7 students in the United Kingdom. The students were between the ages of 11 and 12, and each sample was separated into two groups. Class A worked on Venn diagrams through spaced practice and permutation problems through massed practice — Class B did the opposite. All sessions were conducted in the classroom with the students’ regular teachers present.
The spaced practice involved 12 math problems divided across 3 practice sessions that were one week apart, while the massed practice consisted of a single practice session that combined all 12 problems. During either practice, students were presented with a problem to work on, shown the solution and an explanation, and were then asked to correct their answer. One month later, students took a test of the material.
Overall, the findings supported the spacing effect. For both experiments, students who practiced the math problems over spaced out sessions performed significantly better on the math test than those who participated in a single massed session. Moreover, the extent that students improved with spacing was unrelated to students’ math abilities, suggesting that spacing improves math performance regardless of a student’s skill level.
Students who practice through spaced sessions were also far better at predicting their test scores. Whether they made their predictions after the last practice session or immediately before the test, students in the spaced practice group were fairly accurate in their predictions while those in the massed practice group were overconfident in their abilities.
The study authors speculate that students who learn through massed practice are likely overconfident after experiencing the success that comes with repeating a concept many times over in one session. This success likely leads to a false sense of mastery where students believe they have sufficiently learned the material, failing to recognize that they are susceptible to forgetting this information over time.
The researchers mention that spaced practice is likely beneficial in subject areas other than mathematics, expressing their support for spaced instruction in schools. Despite the difficulties math teachers face when following a set curriculum, they say that spacing can be applied in almost all math courses.
“Though there are some subtleties regarding its implementation,” Emeny and his colleagues note, “the key point is that teachers should shift their mindset so that the practice of a skill or concept is seen not as material that should be squeezed into one or two consecutive class meetings but rather as material that can be distributed across many lessons.”
The study, “Spaced mathematics practice improves test scores and reduces overconfidence”, was authored by William G. Emeny, Marissa K. Hartwig, and Doug Rohrer.