Use ‘Distributed Practice’ to Better Retain What You Study

There’s obviously no point in studying if you don’t remember what you went over when it’s time for the test—and one of the best ways to retain that knowledge is to maintain a particularly strict study schedule. The technique is called “distributed practice,” and here’s how it works.

What is distributed practice?

Distributed practice, like a number of the most common study techniques you can try, has its roots in the work of Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist who studied memory. Over 100 years ago, he studied nonsense syllables over and over to figure out the best way to get them to stick in his memory. He found that the frequency with which he studied them, as well as the order in which he studied them, had an impact on how well he retained them.

Ultimately, his findings led to the development of what we now know as distributed practice, which, per Purdue University, is just a fancy name for spacing study sessions out in a specific way and studying the same thing every time. In essence, it’s the opposite of “massed practice,” which is more commonly known as cramming. Instead of studying everything in one block before your test, you study it in smaller bursts leading up to the test.

How do you distribute the practice?

The trick here is deciding how often to space out your study sessions. Purdue recommends setting aside 50 minutes each day for studying, but leaving one day per week free of studying altogether. Choosing what you study during each day’s allotted time, though, comes down to your testing schedule.

Look ahead in your syllabi and mark all test dates in your planner. According to one study, your best bet for maximum retention is to study the same topic every 10% to 30% of the time you’ll need to retain it. That means if you have a test in 10 days, you’ll study from every one to three days from now until then.

This is where retrieval practice comes in. During your first few study sessions, you’re just studying as normal, using a technique like SQ3R or KWL to engage in active reading. After that, though, you should be using active recall strategies to retrieve the information you already know during the study sessions. The best way to do this is using flashcards, especially following the Leitner system to review the content you already know on spaced intervals that depend on how well you’ve mastered it.

The most important part of distributed practice, though, is repeatedly going over the content on a fixed schedule—even if that means just rereading and reviewing it every four days, it will be more beneficial than cramming.


David Brooks

David Brooks became an Opinion columnist for The New York Times in September 2003. He is currently a commentator on “PBS NewsHour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

He is the author of “Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There” and “On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense.” In March 2011 he came out with his third book, “The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement,” which was a No. 1 New York Times best seller. He is the author of the forthcoming book “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.”

Mr. Brooks also teaches at Yale University and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


The Best GMAT Prep Books for 2023

We understand your concern about selecting the best GMAT prep material in order to score a decent percentile rank in the examination. But due to the availability of various guides and book sets in the market, making an informed decision becomes difficult. Hence, to help you pick the best GMAT prep set for the exam, we have developed this detailed buying guide to reveal the most crucial factors and features you must consider to make an informed decision.

What are the crucial factors to consider for purchasing gmat prep material?Number of pagesA good GMAT guide covers a detailed explanation of every topic in a reasonable number of pages. By this, we mean that a book set that has too many pages with out-of-syllabus topics can be tough to complete. Likewise, a guide with insufficient pages, which does not adequately explain the crucial topics, cannot help you achieve a decent score in the examination.

Publisher and composing institutionAnother crucial factor to focus on while choosing a GMAT prep guide is its publishing institute and compilation faculty. A well-known institute and expert faculty will publish 99.99% accurate strategies and content books. Thus, your chances of scoring higher percentile increases after preparing from such books. Apart from that, there will be minimal chances of error in the content of the prep material, so that you will be consuming only the most accurate and relevant information.

Language readabilityA book that is written in an easy-to-understand and readable language provides a better explanation of any complex topic. On the other hand, if you end up investing your time and dollars in a book set written in complex sentences, you would not be able to complete the syllabus on time and thus regret your decision later. Hence, make sure to read some demo pages of the guide before making a final choice.

Latest editionThe next vital factor to check before buying a GMAT prep guide or book set is its publishing date. It is better to prepare from the latest year’s publication as it is the most updated version of the book and likely to contain the most accurate information about the upcoming test. In case there are any syllabus or question pattern changes for the examination, the latest edition guide is updated accordingly. Thus, you will stay updated with all the recent changes in the test, which can further increase your chances of scoring high on the test.

Video tutorialsVideo tutorials are an amazing source for quickly understanding complex concepts. It’s always easier to learn with visual aids compared to plain audio or text-based lessons. Hence, a guide that gives lesson videos is better than a book set that only offers text-based resources. Many GMAT prep sets come with a unique QR code that you can use to unlock online video resources, so make sure to look out for those when comparing options.

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