Distributed Practice in Games-Based Learning

This week we welcome guest blogger Dave Eng, founder of University XP to illuminate some of the complex concepts surrounding distributed practice in games-based learning.Dave Eng is an intellectual and creative educator, designer, and researcher who combines games, theory, and technology.  Dave has played games for most of his life. As a result he studies game design and teaches others how to use games for education and learning. Dave serves as a faculty member at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. Dave hosts the podcast Experience Points and consults at University XP on games-based learning. He also leads the Games-Based Learning Alliance: a community of individuals who use games for teaching, training, learning, and development. His interests include professional development, learning theory, technology, and games. Find out more at www.davengdesign.com

Distributed Practice in Games-Based Learning

You are probably familiar with “cramming” and studying as much as possible in the time leading up to a test. The opposite of this is “distributed practice.” Distributed practice is where students study in small increments leading up to a test or quiz.

Distributed practice is often recommended by teachers and instructors. But sometimes students lack the foresight or discipline needed to prepare in small increments in the time leading up to the big test day.

However, games don’t have this issue. Games encourage players to return and play (repeatedly) over time. So how can educators use distributed practice for teaching, instruction, and games-based learning?

This article will define distributed practice as a concept of spaced practice with intervals of rest in between. This is compared to massed practice where all of a learner’s activity takes place in one sitting. Distributed practice takes advantage of the “spacing effect” of separating times of practice, study, and engagement. This helps with students’ retrieval and successful application of learning as distributed practice’s biggest asset.

Details for how distributed practice is structured as well as time intervals between student sessions will be covered. Instructor strategies for implementing distributed practice will be included as well as how to design for distributed practice in games-based learning.

What is distributed practice?

Distributed practice is known by several other names. They include spaced repetition or spaced practice. No matter what you call it, distributed practice requites the student to break up their study and practice into short sessions over a longer period of time.

These rest periods punctuate settings where a student is actively engaged and participating versus times when are doing something else. These rest periods can be spent studying or engaging in other materials or doing something outside of the direct realm of the subject being studied.

Reviews, assessments, or tests for these students normally take place after a number of distributed practice events rather than immediately after a specific session.  While smaller assessments (such as quizzes, challenges, or knowledge checks) may occur at the end of these spaced intervals; longer and more challenging assessments (i.e. tests, presentations, projects, or boss battles) take place after a more significant time while engaging in distributed practice.

What is massed practice?

Massed practice on the other hand is the direct opposite of distributed practice. In massed practice a student engages in fewer studying sessions over a given course. If you’ve ever crammed for a test by doing a lot of studying in one sitting the night before, then you’re already familiar with massed practice.

Massed practice doesn’t take into account the spacing that is included in distributed practice. As such it’s found to be less effective at helping student achieve learning outcomes as well as mastering course content or material.

Despite this, cramming is often the direction that many students pursue leading up to a major assessment like a test or a presentation. The reasons for this are various but often include poor preparation; lack of time management; procrastination; or lack of intrinsic motivation.

Distributed practice versus massed practice

You may already be aware of mass practice’s limitations if you’ve relied on it before. You may have remembered or applied information in the short term; but didn’t benefit from it in the long term. Therefore, investing in distributed versus massed practice works better for students in their long term retention.

This success comes from the spacing of these learning sessions out with a break in between them. The use of spacing is the distinguishing factor in helping students with retention of material compared to massed practice.

Students can take advantage of this by studying for an eminent test or exam over the coming days or weeks leading up to it, rather than wait the night before. Doing so ensures that enough time that has passed between study sessions in order for the spacing effect of distributed practice to apply.

Of course, anyone who has taught students before knows that they don’t always invest in spacing out their practice over days or weeks. Unfortunately this means less “meaningful” learning for them compared to massed practice (or cramming) which prioritizes “rote” learning.

Investing in meaningful learning through distributed practice is a worthwhile skill to learn. It begins with the review and application of the “spacing effect” and how it influences individuals’ personal development.

What is the spacing effect?

The spacing effect is the cognitive phenomenon that is emphasized in distributed practice. The spacing effect takes advantage of the shorter; uninterrupted study sessions which leads to more meaningful (and long term learning) compared to a massed session.

This spacing effect affects college students, adult learners, and young children differently. However, it does have application to a wide range of different learning paradigms (such as games-based learning) that can be applied to these individual groups. These different paradigms emphasize the “chunking” or separation of different elements of study into set periods of time over a longer period. These results lead to better memory recall and application.

The spacing effect aids this by providing more contextual variability. This means that learners must think, reflect, and determine how to best identify and apply information in different contexts when engaging with it over different time frames. An example of this is when students study multiple different subjects simultaneously. A concept or problem set in a mathematics class may have philosophical applications that require the student to examine and revisit the problem from a different perspective.

Likewise, in games-based learning, players are able to apply the “language” of game mechanics to other games that they may play in the future. Playing a trick-taking game like Spades helps them use and apply the concept in other games that use trick-taking such as The Fox in the Forest. Likewise, using the same game mechanics in different contexts provides the player with insight on how it can be used to their advantage in different game structures.

Thus, with spacing, learners are provided a more effective means of learning and retaining information. Because of this, teachers and instructors can structure their classes to address curriculum and materials at regular and increasing intervals. Likewise, instructors can also provide agency for students in choosing when and how they return to address these concepts while taking advantage of the spacing effect.

What is retrieval?

When using the concept of distributed practice we also have to address “retrieval.” Specifically we think about informational retrieval and how students’ recall past information during a new learning session.

What the spacing effect does is force students to engage in a more difficult and challenging retrieval process. This is a process that makes students recall information over longer period of times based on their spacing practices. This is directly opposed to massed practice where students are required to only retain information in short term memory – a practice which can be counterintuitive to long-term memory creation.

Students’ retrieval of this memory over a longer term is due to their development of factual (semantic) long term memory rather than shorter term experience (episodic memory). The reasoning behind this is that the retrieval of information no longer becomes a practice of recalling the circumstances in which that experience was formed. Rather, retrieval becomes a practice more closely aligned with expertise development in a new domain. Consequently, this also requires learners to reconcile information conceptually with their other learning experiences in different disciplines.

What are the benefits of distributed practice?

Distributed practice utilizes the spacing effect in order to maximize the retrieval of information for students. This has positive effects in education, academics, and the professional world.

The most successful and proactive students invest in a distributed learning practice in order to achieve their scholastic goals. In addition, students can generalize the success of distributed practice beyond remembering factual information. Benefits also extend to conceptual and procedural information as well.

Given enough experience and practice, learners can actualize and use the benefits of distributed practice to reduce the amount of time spent learning as well as increasing the capacity for recall and action. This directly contrasts massed practice which often suffers due to the shorter term retrieval and application of information.

The main benefit of distributed practice is the need to rest. The rest period creates a boundary between learning sessions. Those boundaries can be filled with other subjects, disciplines, activities, and sleep.  The boundaries represent a form of delineation between learning activities, retrieval, and application of information.

About the Author

Dave Eng, EdD

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