How many of your students still cram for exams? Students should be studying just before tests, but it should not be their first time seriously looking at course materials. Multiple research findings make clear that one frenzied period of study right before the exam generally results in lower scores than regular study sessions, also called spaced or distributed practice.
A recent issue of Teaching of Psychology contains a study (Gurung et al., 2022) in which students were asked to report their use of 10 research-based study strategies. Individual students in two different courses reported using a good number of study approaches, but most of them did not mention spaced practice. The same issue of the journal contains another study (Benson et al., 2022) that looked at the effects of distributed practice on performance and found the same positive effects reported elsewhere. The Benson et al. team spaced the study for students. The experimental group completed four Excel-based data analysis assignments spaced three weeks apart, which a control group did not complete. At the end of the course, all the students completed a large data analysis project. Performance on this project was significantly higher for those in the experimental group.
The second study’s research team also wondered whether distributed practice experiences might affect how students felt about course content and their learning-related perceptions. Those benefits were reported in a prior study of middle school math students, which the authors discuss. College students tend to have negative attitudes about required courses, particularly those perceived to be outside their areas of expertise and that was the case here. The psychology students in the study were enrolled in an introductory statistics course. And like the younger students taking a math course, the college students who completed the spaced data analysis assignments registered “significantly more positive affect toward statistics” (p. 67) than those in the control group. “Students in the distributed practice group also reported higher levels of cognitive competence, confidence in statistics, and perceived value of statistics than students in the control group, but these differences were not statistically significant” (p. 67).
If spaced practice improves exam scores, betters attitudes, and increases confidence, why aren’t more students using it? The cachet associated with pulling an all-nighter persists; it’s still something college students are expected to do, almost a rite of passage. I’d posit two other reasons. First, unfortunately, cramming produces results: it gets students grades they can live with, often very good ones, and teachers make that possible. If students can correctly answer exam questions with content minutiae, then they will hurriedly fill their minds with details. Teachers are quick to point out that’s not possible on their exams, but I’m not sure how many can support that belief with evidence. I strongly recommend that teachers, particularly those who use multiple-choice questions, ask students to anonymously report when, how much and what they studied for the last exam.
As for the second reason, I don’t think students know spaced practice results in these benefits. Research has also shown that students don’t have extensive knowledge of study strategies. They mostly rely on approaches they’ve used previously, committing to them primarily because of their familiarity and how those strategies define what it means to study.
Teachers can share evidence for spaced practice, repeat it regularly, solicit testimonials, and finally, as they did in this study, integrate spaced practice into the course. Quizzes are the easiest way, but they need to be quizzes that require study, and their benefit on exam scores is greatest when they are cumulative. Do students understand that quizzes are being used to improve their exam scores, or do they think teachers regularly test them for punitive reasons? Maybe we need to challenge students to try it—those who crammed for the first exam agree to try spaced practice for the second exam. One instructor told me he sweetened the pot for students with regular review breaks during class. He’d stop for a few minutes, post a potential exam question, and let students review. If anyone left the room or used their phones, he ended break ended and gave no indication of the correct answer.
I’m guessing that if students tried the strategy and got a better exam score, they’d be converts. And if this research is right, our courses get those added benefits—students with better attitudes about the content and greater appreciation of its value.
Benson, W. L., Dunning, J. P., & Barber, D. (2002). Using distributed practice to improve students’ attitudes and performance in statistics. Teaching of Psychology, 49(1), 64–70. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320979680
Gurung, R. A. R., Mai, T, Nelson, M., & Pruitt, S. (2022). Predicting learning: Comparing study techniques, perseverance, and metacognitive skill. Teaching of Psychology, 49(1), 71–77. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628320972332