Distribute your studying to get Better marks

Compiled by Kaveh Farrokh (Ph.D.), Counsellor & Learning Specialist at Langara College Counselling Department.


One of the key learning strategies that leads to superior learning and recall is in how students choose to (or not to) distribute their studying. A common strategy is to cram or to “mass” the learning task(s) into a short timeframe, a common strategy such as “cramming” for exams. Despite the lack of effectiveness of the “cramming” strategy, this remains a common study tool for students. Much more effective is the “Distribution of Learning” in which the student “spreads out” their learning and review over a longer period of time.

An early study by Bloom & Shuell (1981) examining students learning French vocabulary found significant differences in their recall of French words with respect to whether they chose to (a) engage in distributed practice (spread out their learning over wider time period) or (b) massed practice (“cramming” to learn information). The findings revealed that students who spread out their studying (distributed practice) were more successful than their counterparts who engaged in “cramming” (massed practice). Specially the Bloom and Shuell found that the distributed practice learners had 35 percent higher recall of French vocabulary than massed practice learners.

A more recent analysis of the distribution for better learning technique has been made by Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Mitchell, and Willingham (published in the Winter 2015 Special Collector’s edition of Scientific American Mind – a copy is held in reserve at the Langara College Library for students & faculty to consult – citation of the article is provided in “references” below).

Dunlovsky et al. rate the distribution of learning as one of the top two learning strategies (the other being Self-Testing). As noted by Dunlosky et al. (2015, p.43-44):

Students often “mass” their study—in other words, they cram. But distributing learning over time is much more effective. … Distributed practice is effective for learners of different ages studying a wide variety of materials and over long delays. It is easy to do and has been used successfully in a number of real-world classroom studies.

So, to put it simply (and scientifically): distributing your studying is far more effective than cramming. Of Course much of your willingness to distribute your learning is also tied in with your Time Management.

The below video for the Langara College Counselling Department Student Success workshops has been based on the research cited in this article:

The above Video provides tips for How to Budget Your Weekly Study Time by taking into account your lectures, how much time you should set aside for studying for your courses. This video is also summarized in the handout for the Langara College Counselling Department Time Management Workshop.


Bloom, K.C., & Shuell, T.J. (1981). Effects of massed and distributed practice on the learning and retention of second-language vocabulary. Journal of Educational Research, Vol. 74, no.4, pp.245-248.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Mitchell, J.N., & Willingham, D.T. (2015). What works, what doesn’t: some study techniques accelerate learning, whereas others are just a waste of time – but which ones are which? An unprecedented review maps out the best pathways to follow. Scientific American Mind: Behavior-Brain Science-Insights (Special Collector’s Edition), Volume 23, Number 4, Winter, pp.41-47.

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