What we sometimes tend to forget: we are all only human, children included (on distributed practice)

Tim Surma tweeted this study on distributed practice and while what the study describes is as logical as it can be for any parent, still it’s often overlooked: distributed practice is rarely realized in self-regulated mathematical learning. Or to be put in simple words: a lot of students won’t do it by themselves, because, well, they’re human.

The clear written abstract describes the study by Katharina Barzagar Nazari and Mirjam Ebersbach:

The purpose of the present study was to investigate the effect and use of distributed practice in the context of self-regulated mathematical learning in high school. With distributed practice, a fixed learning duration is spread over several sessions, whereas with massed practice, the same time is spent learning in one session. Distributed practice has been proven to be an effective tool for improving long-term retention of verbal material and simple procedural knowledge in mathematics, at least when the practice schedule is externally guided. In the present study, distributed practice was investigated in a context that required a higher degree of self-regulation. In total, 158 secondary school students were invited to participate. After motivational and cognitive characteristics of the students were assessed, the students were introduced to basic statistics, a topic of their regular curriculum. At the end of the introduction, the students could sign up for the study to further practice this content. Eighty-seven students did so and were randomly assigned either to the distributed or to the massed practice condition. In the distributed practice condition, they received three practice sets on three different days. In the massed practice condition, they received the same three sets, but all on one day. All exercises were worked in the context of self-regulated learning at home. Performance was tested 2 weeks after the last practice set. Only 44 students finished the study, which hampered the analysis of the effect of distributed practice. The characteristics of the students who completed the exercises were analyzed exploratory: The proportion of students who finished all exercises was significantly higher in the massed than in the distributed practice condition. Within the distributed practice condition, a significantly larger proportion of female students completed the exercises compared to male students. Additionally, among these female students, a larger proportion showed lower concentration difficulty. No such differential effects were revealed in the massed practice condition. Our results suggest that the use of distributed practice in the context of self-regulated learning might depend on learner characteristics. Accordingly, distributed practice might obtain more reliable effects in more externally guided learning contexts.

So the study seems to be a failure, but the fact that many students dropped out of the experiment is an interesting result in itself:

One of the main purposes of the present study was to investigate the effect of distributed practice on the mathematical performance of high school students using curriculum-relevant material. However, due to a severe dropout rate over the course of the study as a consequence of the study relying on self-regulated-learning, the effect of practice condition on final test performance has a low validity.

But there is more:

First of all, the proportion of students who finished the study was significantly higher in the massed practice condition than in the distributed practice condition. Furthermore, within the distributed practice condition, additional differential effects were found: The proportion of students who finished their exercises was significantly higher among female students than among male students. In addition, within female students who practiced in a distributed manner, the proportion of students who finished the study was significantly higher for girls with low concentration difficulty than for girls with high concentration difficulty. None of these differential effects were found for the massed practice condition. That is, not only did the students complete their exercises more often in the massed practice condition, but for the distributed practicing students, personal characteristics had an additional influence on the completion of the exercises. Taken together, these results imply that distributed practice in self-regulated learning, contrary to massed practice, favors specific students in terms of their willingness to realize this strategy, while others are at a disadvantage.

Therefore this conclusion, which probably wasn’t the thing the researchers were looking for:

The main finding here was that – in contrast to massed practice – distributed practice in semi-self-regulated learning (as the schedule was externally given and not chosen by the students themselves) seems to favor students with particular characteristics: in the current study, female students with lower concentration difficulty. Because self-regulated learning plays an important role especially in high school and at university, these differential effects concerning the application of distributed practice may be problematic if they result in performance improvements of a particular group of students while disfavoring others. Teachers may prefer strategies that improve the performance of all students equally. Therefore, it is vital to know whether and which learners are capable of successfully implementing distributed practice into their own learning schedule.

2 thoughts on “What we sometimes tend to forget: we are all only human, children included (on distributed practice)

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