When to Study With ‘Blocked Practice’ (and When Not to)

When to Study With ‘Blocked Practice’ (and When Not to)

When you’re studying for a class, you have to strategize to determine how much you study, how fast you do it, and how well you retain the information—not to mention for how long you retain it. Typically, I recommend distributed practice for maximum retention, but there are times when “blocked practice,” its opposite, can be helpful.

What are distributed and blocked practice?

Distributed practice—also known as spaced repetition—calls on you to study and review the same topic over and over at different times. By spacing out your study sessions, you stick the information deeper in your memory, making it easier to pull out in the moments when you need it. It does require you to look ahead quite a bit: According to one study, your best bet for max retention is to study the same topic every 10% to 30% of the time you’ll need to retain it; so if you have a test in 10 days, you’ll study from every one to three days from now until then. Typically, you’ll also combine this with interleaving, or the process of mingling different topics in your study sessions, which helps you categorize the information and work on problem-solving. With a mix of distributed practice and interleaving, you’ll study in small chunks every day, but those chunks will be divided up across subjects or ideas, so you’re working your brain fully.

Blocked (or massed) practice is the opposite of that: It involves studying one topic one time, for a sustained period. Essentially, it’s a fancy way of saying “cramming.” There is very little room for interleaving and you’re usually doing this under a bit of stress, with a test or other big event looming. In fact, researchers have found that the best definition of blocked practice is that you present the same information to yourself over and over without shifting to anything else.

When to use distributed or blocked practice to study

While spaced repetition is usually heralded for its ability to help you retain information, there are still some benefits to using blocked practice in certain situations. For instance, it leads to faster skill acquisition that is balanced out by the limitations it places on your ability to retain information long-term or generalize the information to new situations days after you study. Essentially, if you opt for blocked practice, you’ll learn the material fast, but you won’t hold onto it as long and you won’t be able to apply what you’ve learned to anything other than the very specific things you’ve studied.

In that case, blocked practice does work well if you only want to get an A on a test and/or that test is coming up quickly. If you’re going to be quizzed on something specific and there won’t be any opportunities for you to apply the knowledge more generally, blocked practice is totally fine. To get the most out of it, try using the Pomodoro method to at least break up the cram session into more manageable parts, studying for 25 minutes and taking five-minute breaks. Pick up a Pomodoro timer to keep you on track and help you avoid looking at your phone to check the time. If you’re going to cram, you need to focus and stick with it, even if it’s really last-minute or you just want to master the knowledge long enough to pass a test.

If the content is going to keep coming up throughout the class or your studies in a more long-term way, or if you’re being asked to think abstractly and apply the knowledge outside of the situations you’re reviewing, opt for distributed practice when you can. Use a study planner to help you figure out which days you should be studying on in relation to when your test is and pick up some flash cards, too, so you can use the Leitner system, which is a flashcard method that relies on spaced repetition to help you get your materials into your long-term memory. Using the planner and flashcards might seem a little antiquated, but writing things down instead of typing them out also helps with your memory, and since you’re using spaced repetition, you have the time.

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