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Practice is Practice, Right?

Part 1: Distributed Practice

Practice is Practice, Right? Not really. There are so many kinds of practice—massed practice, distributed practice, retrieval practice, and interleaved practice, to name a few. And, each corresponds to a specific educational goal. Let’s sort them out.

Let’s start with distributed practice, also known as spaced learning, and sometimes, spiraling. It’s becoming an extremely popular strategy in elementary classrooms. Why? When the goal is mastery and long-term retention, distributed practice works best. It’s that simple. Distributing practice means practicing repeatedly over time (spaced repetition is yet another name for it). During short study sessions, students revisit and interact with previously learned skills and concepts. It’s the opposite of massed practice, or “cramming.”

Building Student Confidence and Raising Test Scores


Here’s how one elementary teacher* used distributed practice in math:

I created mixed review pages and assigned them as homework. The daily practice included only items the students were familiar with. I wanted my students to be able to complete the homework on their own and without frustration. My goals were to build confidence and reinforce everything they had learned. Every item on the page covered a different skill, for example, there was an estimation question, then a geometry problem, then multi-digit multiplication, then adding fractions, and so on.

During the first few minutes of class, we checked homework and went over any items they’d done wrong or struggled with. I took the time to make sure everyone understood how to do each item correctly. That part didn’t take long; in fact, it took less and less time as the year went on.

Then, I assigned the next homework sheet and spent the biggest chunk of class time teaching new material. I assigned just 3-5 problems from the new material and allowed students to work on them right away. That way, I’d be there if they needed help. I figured it was pointless to assign a whole page of problems they were just learning how to do. I knew they would do the 20 or 30 problems but just one a day for the next 20 or 30 days—and beyond!

Over the course of a single school year, this teacher’s class accelerated a full grade level in math. Here’s why:

  • The teacher set up a routine and followed it consistently.
  • Students had plenty of time to master the material.
  • Students did not have the opportunity to forget—they used distributed practice.
  • Students experienced success. That increased their confidence, and their confidence led to even greater success.

Next, we’ll talk about retrieval practice and how it pairs beautifully with distributed practice.

*The teacher was Nancy McGraw, creator of Simple Solutions.


Here are some favorite articles and research about distributed practice.

Six Strategies for Effective Learning (spacing)

Learning About Learning: What Every New Teacher Needs to Know

Practice Makes Perfect—but Only If You Practice Beyond the Point of Perfection

Allocating Student Study Time: “Massed” versus “Distributed” Practice

About the author

Nancy Tondy

Nancy is a former elementary teacher and gifted intervention specialist. She joined Simple Solutions in 2005 as co-author of the original English Grammar & Writing Mechanics series, and today, she manages our Writing Team. Outside of work, Nancy enjoys cooking, movies, biking, and travel.

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