Cramming or Spacing?

Several people, in bringing me their concerns about the “modified balanced calendar” proposal, have raised the “spacing effect” as a possible benefit of keeping a school calendar that places first semester final exams after the winter break.

The developers of Memrise, who designed their vocabulary-learning flashcard program based on research on the spacing effect, explain the concept like this:

Let’s compare two ways of learning. The first, massed repetition, is when you are repeatedly presented with an item to learn, in a short space of time. The second, spaced repetition, is when you are repeatedly presented with an item, but the repetitions are spaced out. As it turns out, spaced repetition leads to significantly better learning than massed repetition. This is called the spacing effect. The point is that the timing of your reviews makes a substantial difference to the payoff that you get from each review. Spaced out is better than massed.

When applied to studying for exams, Williams College psychology professor Nate Kornell has this advice: “Space your studying.” He explains:

If you are going to study something two times (or more), try to let as much time pass as possible between the first and second time you study. For example, don’t read your textbook chapter and then review it on the same day. Study it and then review it on a different day, and allow as much time to pass between the two study sessions as possible. Better yet, spread your studying across numerous days. You don’t necessarily have to study more, you just have to distribute your study time differently.

The spacing effect helps to explain why it’s an ineffective strategy to “cram” for a test. Cramming doesn’t allow time for information to move from the short-term to the long-term memory. More information is forgotten in the long term. Spaced studying, on the other hand, does allow for more consolidation of information in the long-term memory.

I’m not sure, though, that the research supports the applicability of the spacing effect to a discussion of whether to move exams from after winter break to before the break. My impression is that the spacing effect is more applicable to general strategies of presenting and studying information. It’s better in general to space lessons and review of information than to cram. Research shows that students who have a regular, spaced study routine, and who get sufficient sleep, are likely to have greater academic success than those who do nothing but cram for the test. I’m not convinced that students habituated to cramming will change that behavior, and benefit from the spacing effect, based on the configuration of the school calendar.

3 thoughts on “Cramming or Spacing?

  1. Very interesting research on the Spacing Effect. It helped me realize that I’ve typically used a combination of spacing and cramming methods over the course of my education. However, I’m also not convinced that study methods would be influenced by the school calender.

  2. Agree with you that I am not sure the existing research bears on the question of the placement of exams.. I am reasonably certain, though, that the spacing effect does imply, rather strongly, that more and shorter school calendar days (say, 180 like the rest of the civilized parts of the country) are more beneficial than our 174 with longer days. Instructional hours aren’t fungible: One that comes at the end of a 6 hour school day does a student less good than one that comes after 5 hours. If we are all gonna be research-driven, then let’s start by changing our calendar to add more and shorter days.

  3. Although my children, now 51-55, were never in the NF school system, there is a basic premise here that I feel very strongly about.
    That is: there is only a superficial goal fulfilled by ‘teaching to tests’. And any program which has that underlying goal is a bad one, IMO.

    Is the goal of education not to create persons who can put their learned experiences to bear on the problems they confront throughout their lives?

    That might make me stuck in the period of “Renaissance man” learning (so antiquated it only says ‘man’), but I think the basic concept is strong. My goals for education create people who can attack almost any task with confidence, use the freedom of their imagination and intellect to ascertain how they might approach tasks they are not as familiar with, and have the sense to use expert advice when needed.

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