Home > Development, Education, Memory > Did They Pass or Did They Mass: A Context Perspective

Did They Pass or Did They Mass: A Context Perspective

Let’s go on a journey into the life of a student, shall we? It’s 11PM the evening before your final exam. You are reading over the material countless times, hoping that it will still be fresh in your mind at 9 AM the next morning. Thoughts may be running through your head, one of them being: I wish I had studied this material before this dreadful, crammed study session. Well, it turns out that your thoughts are on the right track! Memory research has suggested advantages for distributing the study of material across time, also known as the spacing effect. This effect suggests that one is better able to remember information when learning is spaced across multiple, separate sittings. On the other hand, material is not remembered as well when the learning is crammed into one sitting.  For example, you may have a list of vocabulary words to learn for next week. According to the spacing effect, you will better remember the words if you study for a half hour every other day than for an hour and a half the night before the test.

However, much of the research in this area of spaced study has been conducted in laboratory settings with undergraduate students. This seemed a bit odd to researchers Sobel, Cepeda, and Kapler (2011), as they believed that the advantages of spaced study could, and should, be utilized in actual classrooms! Therefore, they examined the spacing effect in a fifth grade classroom. By conducting the experiment in a classroom, researchers would also be able to apply realistic spacing gaps, which is the space in time between each exposure to the material being learned, that are applicable to classroom learning. Much of the research examining the spacing gap conducted in laboratories has only used spacing gaps of a few minutes. But as learning is a process of combining past learned information with what is currently being learned (Sobel, Cepeda, and Kapler, 2011), researchers believed that conducting the study in a classroom would allow for a more realistic approach to examining the benefits of spaced study.

Researchers wanted to test the students on material that they likely had never seen before. Therefore, they chose eight words that were included in the most recent Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to be taught by the participants’ normal classroom teacher. This is a much different approach than past studies conducted in laboratories that examined the spacing effect. In these past studied studies, for example, the information to be learned was taught by researchers. So, in order to examine the spacing effect in a classroom setting, thirty-nine students from two fifth-grade classrooms were split into two groups: one group was in the spaced condition in which the participants learned the eight words in one sitting, then again 1 week later. The other students were in the massed condition in which the two learning sessions were only 1 minute apart. All of the participants were then given a vocabulary test 5 weeks later to test how well they had remembered the words.

On the final vocabulary test, participants who distributed their learning across time remembered three times as many word definitions that those students who massed their learning! Therefore, researchers concluded that the spacing effect can be applied to actual classroom environments. In my opinion, this finding has great potential to benefit the learning of students of all ages, even those who are in college and beyond! According to the researchers, the results obtained can be explained by the encoding variability hypothesis. This hypothesis explains the importance of studying in multiple contexts, which occurs when practicing spaced study. When you study information, you are creating a memory trace. These traces are also composed of cues that allow you to retrieve information. However, when creating these cues, you are not only taking in the material that you are learning. You are also encoding (“taking in”) details of the environment around you, as well as your mood, feelings, and your fatigue (as it is finals week, after all.) The more places that you study, the more traces, and therefore cues, you will have created and will be able to access when it comes time to take your exam. Most likely, some of these traces that you have created while studying in multiple environments and in multiple mental states will overlap with the environment in which you are taking the exam, as well as your metal state, which will allow you to use the cues that you created! In massed study, however, you are not able to create as many memory traces in different environments, as you are studying in one environment and in one period of time (and therefore one mental state…which may be panic.) Thus, in massed study, you are relying more on the similarity of context in the place you studied and the place you will take your exam – as well as similarities in your mental state while studying and at the time of the exam- because your collection of traces and cues are much smaller than your collection of traces and cues when practicing spaced study. After that explanation, I hope I have convinced you of the powers of spaced study! Believe me, it works!

Researchers also provide suggestions for teachers to implement the benefits of spaced studying in classroom activities without having to allocate extra time to relearning the material. For example, researchers believe that spaced learning can be implemented in daily quizzes that test students on material learned days before, writing short responses about material learned weeks ago, or administering cumulative exams in order to allow the students to revisit older material. However, in my opinion, it is not only of the responsibility of educators to ensure that their students are remembering important information learned in the classroom; it is also up to the students! After reading this post, I hope all of the students out there can ream the benefits of spaced learning, and even suggest helpful study strategies to other students and teachers! For more effective study tips, check out my fellow classmates’ blogs, such as “Studying for Finals? Best Study Tip: Retrieval” by Jumana Hashim, or “ATTENTION: Tips for Finals Week” by Abigail Fontaine or by checking other posts in the Education category!


Sobel, H. S., Cepeda, N. J., & Kapler, I. V. (2011). Spacing effects in real‐world classroom vocabulary learning. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(5), 763-767. doi:10.1002/acp.1747




  1. March 16th, 2014 at 14:37 | #1

    I found this article very interesting and actually helpful to many students looking for more effective study methods. I think this is very applicable to many students who are trying to study for multiple tests in a single week, especially during finals or midterm week. I may have actually employed this strategy in that when faced with having 3 midterms in 3 days, instead of studying for each midterm on the day before the midterm, I started a few days before the tests and studied portions of material for every class each day leading up to the midterms. This actually made my memory and recall of the material much better than if I had spent full days studying the material for a a single class.
    This topic is definitely related to our discussion in lecture about turning controlled processes into automatic processes through consistent practice, as well as creating memory traces. Repeated studying in separate circumstances/environments may create more memory traces than studying in one long block of time, which could potentially make recall of material a more automatic process and less of using an algorithm to recall information.

  2. May 5th, 2014 at 19:36 | #2

    I think the results of this study really demonstrate that students are capable of succeeding on different assignments and tests if they utilize important study skills. I have personally benefitted from spacing my study periods and find it helpful to make study guides after each chapter even if the midterm isn’t for a couple of weeks. Especially in cognitive psych, the biweekly quizzes have provided a great opportunity to space my studying, which has led to success on later tests.

    This post also connects to the Roediger & Pyc (2012) paper we read in class, which discusses cognitive techniques that enhance students’ performance in the classroom. Recently, educational systems have been experimenting with expensive technology with the hopes of improving learning in classrooms. However, the educational systems should instead focus on proven study skills to save money and increase students’ classroom success. The paper reported that distributed practice, retrieval practice, and self-explanation are all useful techniques for learning. The next step is to implement these techniques into the lesson plans of teachers and professors to see an amazing increase in performance on tests and assignments. Therefore, the students will develop strong studying and thinking skills that they can rely on in the future for better memory retrieval even after they are done with schooling.

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