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The Limits of Massed Practice

Our intuition persuades us to dedicate stretches of time to the single-minded repetitive practice of things we want to master. We’ve been led to believe that the regimen of massed practice is essential for building mastery of a skill or learning new knowledge. But it fails the long-term test.

These intuitions are compelling and hard to distrust for two reasons. First, as we practice over and over, we often see our performance improving, which serves as a powerful reinforcement of this strategy. Second, we fail to see that the gains made during single-minded repetitive practice come from short-term memory and fade quickly.

We fail to perceive how quickly the gains fade, which leaves us with the impression that massed practice is productive. Given the misplaced faith in this kind of practice, most students put off review until exam time nears. Then they bury themselves in the material, repeatedly going over it and trying to burn it into memory.

The belief that you can burn something into memory through sheer repetition is common but mistaken. Lots of practice works, but only if it’s spaced out. Massed practice feels more productive than spaced practice, but it’s not.

Spaced, or random practice, feels more difficult because you’ve gotten a little rusty and the material is harder to recall. It feels like you’re not really getting on top of it. In fact, quite the opposite is happening as you reconstruct learning from long-term memory.

As awkward as it feels, you are strengthening both your mastery and memory by forcing the brain to recall and interleave parts of different circuits and come up with the best one for the shot at hand.