There are two major types of practice: massed practice and distributed practice. We need and use both types.
Massed practice is when you do everything at once, in one mass. It’s when you go to the driving range, take three buckets of golf balls, and hit them until you’re so tired that you can’t do any more.
Massed practice is taking a whole semester of French in a weekend. Or studying a whole semester the night before the final exam.
Baseball great Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters of all time. He spent hours in the batting cage. He reportedly hit balls until his hands bleed. This is massed practice.
- Immediate results. You can see improvement quickly. Recently, I was practicing tying bow ties. It wasn’t my first time using a self-tie but I don’t do it everyday. I wasn’t struggling with the process, so I sat down and tied my bow time five or six times in a row. I saw immediate results. I was much faster and smoother. That’s the biggest advantage of massed practice.
- Fewest number of days. The second major advantage of massed practice is getting through things you don’t like. If you hate or fear a subject, you might take it as a Jan-Term, Intersession, Summer Class or weekend seminar. Having it done in 4 weeks feels better than spending 16 weeks at it.
- It feels like you’re making progress. People like massed practice. They might be suffering through the long sessions but keep thinking about almost being done.
- Takes more hours. Massed practice has fewer days but the sessions long. More hours are spent in massed practice than in distributed practice. Distributed practice takes more days but less total hours.
- Make more errors. With massed practice, you don’t learn the material or skill as well. Distributed practice produces better results.
- Learning doesn’t last. When tested a year later, people taught with massed practice perform less well than those taught with distributed practice. It doesn’t stick as well.
- Inconsistent behavior. With massed practice, we tend to overwork ourselves and then take a long break. Massed practice is a form of binge learning. You hit 3 buckets in one day but don’t go back to the driving range for 3 months.
- No pacing. With massed practice, you don’t learn to pace yourself. You tend to do all or none. It would be like brushing your teeth 365 times in one day, instead of once a day for a year.
With distributed practice, you do a little bit every day. You spread things out over time.
Distributed practice is also called spaced practice or spaced repetition. There are spaces between practice sessions. Distributed practice has shorter sessions but more days.
You may have heard that to be an expert you need to spend 10000 hours practicing. But that is not 10000 hours practicing continuously for 208 days. It is 10000 hours spread out over 10 years. In fact, the optimal amount of time (greatest bang for your buck) is one hour a day, every day.
Distributed practice is practicing your violin an hour a day, brushing your teeth once (or twice) a day, and studying statistics over 15-16 weeks.
- Faster learning. With distributed practice, you learn a skill in fewer total hours.
- Better learning. With distributed practice, you learn it better (have less errors).
- Longer-lasting learning. With distributed practice, what you lasts longer. A year after class, you’ll remember the distributed tasks better.
- Staying alert. You have higher energy and are much more aware of what’s going on because there is less opportunity for fatigue or boredom to set in.
- Intensity. It is easier to work harder for a short period. With distributed practice, you don’t hurt yourself by overextending or oversaturating yourself.
- Motivation. It is much easier to maintain motivation for a short period of time.
- Not as popular. People prefer to get things over.
- Hard to see quick returns. Distributed practice is more of an investment.
- Scheduling. Sometimes there is not enough time before a deadline to use distributed practice.
Applying It To Real Life
Distributed practice is the best approach for most learning situations. An hour a day of productive study will produce the best long term results.
Multiple study sessions using backward chaining is better than only doing it once. If you are trying to learn the Gettysburg Address, do a little bit every day.
Review Dan Harmon’s story telling model on a daily basis for a couple of weeks. Say to yourself: “You, need go search find take return change you.”
Don’t forget your daily review of our five tips for memorizing: backward chaining, distributed practice, self-associations, method of loci and silly songs.