March 27, 2023

Why Spaced Study is Far More Effective than Cramming

By Janzen Harding, Instructor

It’s okay, I don’t have to study until Thursday, the test is Friday. I’ll just cram for a few hours to get ready. It worked on my last test!

Sound familiar? Cramming, from a student’s perspective, is often a favored study practice: it seems to be the most efficient use of time by hustling, usually last-minute, to pack as much information as possible into memory. The problem with cramming is that information gets stored into working memory, not long-term memory. And, unfortunately, most cumulative tests require the recall of information learned over the course of several months, and the only way to dig up that information from week 1 is if it is stored in long-term memory. 

The research on memory is robust and clearly indicates that spacing out studying over a longer period of time encodes information into long-term memory. The cognitive science term for this approach is called spacing. Here are three benefits of incorporating spacing into your study habits.

1. Spacing is an executive functioning power skill.

Spacing incorporates:

  • Breaking down large tasks into more manageable chunks
  • Planning ahead
  • Backwards design
  • Estimating time on a task
  • Mapping out work

All of which, if learned in the context of studying, can easily transfer into other areas of life. Research shows that students who acquire strong executive function skills have better outcomes not only in terms of school achievement, but also on measures of economic success, health and nutrition, and positive behavioral measures. 

2. Spacing helps fight procrastination. 

Procrastination is a precursor to cramming. In a typical cramming situation, a student may commit two hours to studying the night before a test. For most, the thought of sitting down to study for two hours is daunting. Not only is this an unreasonable demand on one’s attention and focus, but it creates an inflexible block in one’s schedule and may conflict with other responsibilities. In addition, the teenage brain is wired to prefer immediate rewards over delayed ones.  No wonder a student would want to avoid studying as long as possible! However, if a student spaces their study sessions over a longer period of time for shorter lengths of time, now they’re looking at several 20-minute study sessions… much more manageable than a two-hour trudge!

3. Spacing creates long-term memory. 

Research shows that spacing can be up to twice as effective for encoding information into long-term memory than the alternative approach, massed practice. Massed practice is comprised of long, intensive periods of studying and is what is better known as cramming when it’s done last minute. Unfortunately, massed practice also happens to be the most popular form of studying because it feels more effective and, to a degree, works in the short-term. However, the evidence is clear: spaced studying results in better memory retention and recall since it encodes information into long-term memory. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that students who space their studying out score higher than students who do massed practice on assessments that are given weeks after the initial learning has been done. In addition, spaced studying takes advantage of the well-documented fact that sleep consolidates memory. 

Try it out! Estimate how much time you think you’ll need to study for something and break it down over the course of time leading up to the assessment. For example, if you are given 5 day’s notice of a quiz, instead of planning to study for two hours the night before, plan on spending 20 minutes each day leading up to it. In total, you will actually spend less time studying (100 mins. vs. 120 mins.) and the studying you do will be more effective!