Distributed Practice: A Key Learning Technique

A key concept in teaching and learning is the idea of distributed practice. Distributed practice is a process in which the teacher deliberately arranges for their students to practice a skill or use knowledge in many learning sessions that are short in length and distributed over time.

The purpose behind employing distributed practice is to allow for the reinforcement of the material in the student’s mind through experiencing the content several times. In this post, we will look at pros and cons of distributed practice as well as practical applications of this teaching technique

Pros and Cons

Distributed practice helps to maintain student motivation through requiring short spans of attention and motivation. For most students, it is difficult to study anything for long periods of time. Through constant review and exposure, students become familiar with the content.

Another benefit is the prevention of mental and physical fatigue. This is related to the first point. Fatigue interferes with information processing. Therefore, a strategy that reduces fatigue can help in students’ learning new material.

However, there are times when short intense sessions are not enough to achieving mastery. Project learning may be one example. When completing a project, it often requires several long stretches of completing tasks that are not conducive to distributed practice.

Application Examples

When using distributed practice it is important to remember to keep the length of the practice short. This maintains motivation. In addition, the time between sessions should initial be short as well and lengthen as mastery develops. If the practice sessions are too far a part, students will forget.

Lastly, the skill should be practiced over and over for a long period of time. How long depends on the circumstances. The point is that distributed practice takes a commitment to returning to a concept the students need to master over a long stretch of time.

One of the most practical examples of distributed practice may be in any curriculum that employs a spiral approach. A spiral curriculum is one in which key ideas are visited over and over through a year or even over several years of curriculum.

For our purposes, distributed practice is perhaps a spiral approach employed within a unit plan or over the course of a semester. This can be done in many ways such as.

  • The use of study guides to prepare for quizzes
  • Class discussion
  • Student presentations of key ideas
  • Collaborative project

The primary goal should be to employ several different activities that require students to return to the same material from different perspectives.

Conclusions

Distributed practice is a key teaching technique that many teachers employ even if they are not familiar with the term. Students cannot see any idea or skill once. There must be exposed several times in order to develop mastery of the skill. As such, understanding how to distribute practice is important for student learning.

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