The Distribution of Practice

Attempting to achieve effective practice, instructors across diverse fields often debate whether the practice within individual sessions should be spread out over longer periods of time, with more time devoted to rest, or that it should be packed together more closely in time. And likewise, whether individual practice sessions should be shorter but more frequent, or there should rather be fewer but longer sessions.

Such considerations concern the distribution of practice, which involves balancing periods of rest and work within a practice schedule.

Research concerning the effects of practice distribution has a long history across various areas of skill acquisition, with the period between 1930 and 1960 witnessing the greatest interest and number of studies (Adams, 1987).

Since that time, however, partially because of shifting theoretical perspectives and the emergence of new topics of research interest (and also perhaps because many scholars thought little new was left to discover), few research studies have been directed toward further extending our understanding of practice distribution effects.

Distribution versus Massed Practice

In studying the influence of practice distribution accross different areas of skill acquisition, researchers have typically contrasted the effects of two types of practice schedules. These are distributed practice and massed practice.

Unfortunately, a good deal of confusion has resulted from the fact that researchers have not always used these terms in the same way, leading to problems when comparing the results of various studies.

  • Researchers frequently use these terms in a general way to indicate two extremes on a rest-to-work continuum, with distributed practice involving longer periods of rest and shorter periods of active practice (i.e., work), and massed practice involving less time in rest and longer periods in active practice (work).

This way of defining the two terms is subjective and comparative in nature, and is typically used to contrast practice schedules across several practice sessions or within a single session when discrete skills are studied (because discrete skills are often completed quickly, therefore always necessitating relatively longer rest intervals between practice attempts than the actual time in practice).

At other times, researchers also use a more objective method of defining both distribution schedules, particularly when distributive effects on continuous skills are contrasted within a single practices session.

  • Under these circumstances, distributed practice may be defined as a practice session in which the amount of time in rest is equal to or greater than the amount of time in work, whereas massed practice is then defined as a practice schedule in which there is a greater amount of time in work than in rest.

Based upon the long history of research on practice distribution effects, strong consensus has emerged about the relative merits of distributed and massed practice schedules in some areas, whereas in other areas researchers remain divided (Dail & Christian, 2004; Lee & Genovese, 1988).

Two major reviews of the literature support the conclusion that distributed practice promotes better acquisition performance than massed practice (Donovan & Radosevich, 1999; Lee and Genovese, 1988). This may appear a somewhat obvious conclusion, because distributed practice, being more restful, leads to less fatigue and would therefore be expected to result in better acquisition performance than massed practice.

The buildup of both physiological and psychological fatigue resulting from massed practice, imposing greater demands upon learners, can play a powerful role in depressing the ability to respond skillfully during practice. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, most experts now believe that the massing of practice for discrete skills depresses practice performance, but not learning, when contrasted with distributed practice.

The implications of research for the practice scheduling of continuous skills seems clear, which is to distribute practice to provide frequent rest periods while seeing that the total time in rest exceeds that in actual practice. Practice sessions that are shorter and distributed over a longer period (days/weeks, etc.) promote better learning than do practice sessions that are longer and massed over shorter periods of time.