Sunday / May 26

Massed Versus Spaced Out Practice

From John Hattie’s research on effectiveness of various educational strategies we have learned that spaced practice, instead of massed practice, is significant. In fact, it is 12th on the list of over 100 strategies. For the most part, education in the United States has followed the practice of massed practice – not spaced out practice.

At first I did not understand Hattie’s vocabulary, but then it clicked. Massed practice is the basis for mastery learning, weekly spelling tests, and chapter tests. Students concentrate on a particular set of knowledge or skills, have that checked off, and move onto the next content to be mastered. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in mathematics. Students work on addition and subtraction facts in first and second grade. Enter third grade: Students master the 2’s facts, then the 5’s, then the 3’s, and so on. That is massed practice.

What would spaced out practice be? Students would always be asked questions from the current year’s work and from prior year’s curriculum. The math fluency quizzes located at follow the spaced out advice. Even on grade 8 math fluency quizzes there are addition and subtraction questions.

Once a fluency expectation is taught it never goes away. Samples from each grade level can be found here. We have found that weekly assessment for Algebra II students should follow a formula similar to the one below:

5 questions from algebra II

2 questions from geometry

1 question from algebra I

1 question from pre-algebra

1 question from grade 6 math

Students and teachers alike are amazed at how often questions from prior year’s curriculum are missed, even the grade 6 questions.

If Hattie’s research is correct, then we must seriously reconsider the value of chapter tests, as they are prime examples of massed practice. We all know that massed practice creates in the mind of the students the cram/get a grade/forget cycle. Formulas need to be built for every subject from grades 1 through 12. Spelling could be, in grade 5 for example, 20 words from grade 5, 3 from grade 4, and 1 from grade 3. Science in high school biology could be 5 questions from biology, 2 questions from physical science one year earlier, 1 question from earth science two years earlier, 1 question from three years earlier, and 1 question on the scientific method. The term I use for this type of structure for graded and non-graded assessments is stabilization. We align the curriculum internally from grade level to grade level and then stabilize it.

One of the very best staff development experiences that administrators can provide their teachers is to give them a day to internally align their curriculum and then another day to stabilize it. The most important alignment we will ever do is alignment with each other. No grade level can have on their list of expectations concepts already taken by another grade level. Of course we look at standards from our state, province or country, but the most important alignment is with each other.

Everywhere, with a minimum of effort, schools can make the switch from massed to spaced out practice. Teachers can explain their grading process with statements such as, “Seventy percent of your grade will be content from this course and 30% will be questions on exams from prior years. When you take standardized exams you will have questions from prior years; it is my desire to help you remember and do well on these exams. Further, the admissions office of the university may look only at your grade point average, but the professors actually expect you to remember what you learned in K-12 education. This may be a shock now, but as the year progresses you will really appreciate having content in your long-term memory instead of cramming and dumping.”

Since educators are often frustrated with students lack of knowledge from prior courses, this switch from massed practice to spaced out practice should not be tremendously difficult.

Written by

Lee Jenkins is a Corwin author, consultant and speaker. His book Optimize Your School: It’s All About the Strategy, was released in June of 2015. His processes are successfully implemented in PK to 12 in all subjects. The major focus is intrinsic motivation through continuous improvement. Because students complete all graphs of data there is extremely high student engagement. Effect sizes have been calculated, based upon John Hattie’s Visible Learning, that range from .65 to over 4.00 with an average of 1.5. He strives to replace “teaching, learning and forgetting” with “teaching, learning and remembering.” Classroom scenes and student and teacher interviews are available through and then clicking on the YouTube icon.

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