Why Spaced Learning Works Better Than Cramming

January 25th, 2014 No Comments Other

You probably don’t need a study to tell you that late-night coffee-fueled cramming sessions aren’t the best way to be preparing for an important exam, but  neuroscientists in Japan recently uncovered new evidence that helps explain the so-called “spacing effect.”

Of course neuroscientists have long known that learning is more effective when spaced out over a longer period of time, and previous research has shown that spaced learning enhances memory and the survival of new neurons. 

But this new study, published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), is the first to look at the changes in the brain that influence long-term memory retention.

To study the horizontal optokinetic response, which is the reflex that allows you to watch the passing scenery while driving or follow the ball with your eyes during a tennis match, the researchers trained two groups of mice to track revolving images.

While the mice watched the fast-moving images, a camera tracked their eye movements to determine the moment at which they registered and responded to each image.

One group of mice was trained with hour-long breaks between each trial, while the second group was trained in one massed learning session.

Initially the mice had some difficulty tracking the images, but after some time they adjusted to the speed and began to respond more quickly.

The difference between the mice who had been given a break between trials and those who had not, however, was that the mice who had crammed their training were only able to remember what they had learned for about a week.

Those who had been given a break of even just one hour between each session retained the memory for more than four weeks.

The researchers explain that the memory retention that occurred after these trials can be linked to structural changes in a set of nerves cells known as Purkinje neurons. These cells are important for motor skills, such as running or even typing.

In the mice that had been trained without breaks, these changes took days to occur, but for the mice who learned over a longer period of time, the changes were evident within the space of just four hours.

“Memory induced by repeated training spaced over time is superior to an equal amount of training without spacing,” note the researchers in their report.

“Surprisingly, even after the acquisition of similar levels of behavioral gain and synaptic elimination, the long-lasting memory decayed much quicker in massed than in spaced training.”

The conclusion that can be drawn is pretty clear: memory retention, although not acquisition, is dependent on how learning is spaced.

While cramming may serve the temporary purpose of refreshing existing memory or even establishing new short-term memory, it won’t be of much use in the long term and certainly won’t provide students with much working knowledge of their subject.

Check out our interactive infographic for more learning strategies.


Marianne Stenger is a London-based freelance writer and journalist with extensive experience covering all things learning and development. She’s particularly interested in the psychology of learning and how technology is changing the way we learn. Her articles have been featured by the likes of ABC Education, The Huffington Post, Lifehacker, and Psych Central. Follow her on Twitter @MarianneStenger.

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