Massed v Distributed Practice in ELT

In cognitive psychology, studies in various fields have shown that when studying factual information or practicing a particular skill like a golf swing or reversing a car, spaced practice gets better results than massed practice. It’s a big step from these results to the claim that spaced practice can have a transformative effect on learning a second or foreign language. Here are a few quotes from journals dealing with SLA and ELT.

1. Bird, S. (2010). Effects of distributed practice on the acquisition of L2 English syntax. Applied Psycholinguistics, 31, 635-650

The results showed that distributed practice led to superior test scores on the long-term tests, indicating that the learning of second language syntax can benefit from distributed practice …..

These improvements admittedly only pertain to subsets of the knowledge and cognitive skills required for tests measuring overall proficiency (e.g., overall communicative ability; Lapkin et al., 1998). As suggested by results of some language-learning studies, there remains the possibility that at the global proficiency level, language learning involves a degree of complexity that eliminates the benefit of distributed learning .

One related limitation of the present study that should be pointed out is that the tests measured the ability to detect and correct verb morphology in a context that enforced conscious attention to the verb forms. Full language proficiency, of course, depends on the ability to produce grammatically well-formed sentences at a discourse level spontaneously and correctly during real communication with little or no conscious attention to verb morphology. The present results do not warrant a conclusion that the grammatical distinctions have been “learned” in this more global sense of language learning.

2, Miles, S.W. (2014). Spaced vs. massed distribution instruction for L2 grammar learning. System, 42, 412-428.

Most research that has investigated the issue of time distribution in this manner has failed to find an advantage for spaced distribution learning. (see Serrano & Munoz, 2007; for an overview of these studies)……….

…… Donovan and Radosevich’s (1999) meta-analysis of 63 studies on the spacing effect, found that the effect sizes of studies were much smaller when the learning tasks involved a high degree of task complexity. Thus, while spaced distribution practice may have a strong effect on the learning of a relatively simple task such as memorizing a list of words, the effect is less dramatic on more cognitively demanding tasks such as puzzle solving or learning a skill involving the synthesis of a number of behaviors and choices. ……….

….. no conclusions can be drawn about massed vs. spaced distribution methodology employing other forms of grammatical practice such as communicative approaches to grammar instruction (e.g., focus on form) or implicit learning. Finally, while the results of the study suggest that the learning of specific grammatical structures may be benefited by spaced distribution practice, they do not give any reliable data on how spaced distribution may affect general skill development. It is possible that grammar learned through spaced distribution would fail to transfer to general speaking and writing skills.

3. Schuetze, U. (2015). Spacing techniques in second language vocabulary acquisition: Short-term gains vs. long-term memory. Language Teaching Research, 19, 28-42.

…. none of the differences regarding the retention rates comparing both groups directly were statistically significant.

The results give support to Schmitt’s (2010) observation that second language learners report having difficulties learning function words. For teaching and learning, it might be helpful to not just follow suggestions made in textbooks or language programs that group words by theme or grammatical category, but to pay attention to the underlying factors of processing a word, such as the division between content and function words.

4. Serrano, R.; Muñoz, C. (2007). Same hours, different time distribution: Any difference in EFL? System 35, 305-321.

Although our findings are still preliminary, they seem to suggest that concentrating second language instruction has a positive impact on the students’ acquisition of certain aspects of a particular language, as other studies have previously shown (Collins et al., 1999; Lightbown and Spada, 1994; Peters, 2000; Spada and Lightbown, 1989; White and Turner, 2005). The claim that intensive programs are more effective than extensive programs may indicate that, contrarily to what some cognitive psychology research studies have shown in the laboratory (Dempster, 1987; Glanzer and Duarte, 1971; Hintzman et al., 1973; Melton, 1970), massed practice can be more effective than distributed practice in classroom learning (Carroll, 1994; Rettig and Canady, 2001; Seamon, 2004), especially in the case of second/foreign languages.


6 thoughts on “Massed v Distributed Practice in ELT

  1. Great minds think alike, I suppose. I was also doing literature research on this very same topic. In fact, I read the Schuetze article, but was put off by their research design. The way they presented vocabulary – English word, followed by German word, followed by students writing it down on a piece of paper – is not what I would call “studying” vocabulary. It is commonly believed that we need 8-12 exposures before we learn a word. In doing spaced repetition in this way, it would take weeks to hit that number. When I do spaced repetition on my own (for my own language learning, using Anki), I am getting exposed to words multiple times in one session. The easy ones show up less (because I know them) and the harder ones keep popping up until I know them. The next time I study, the difficult words appear along with new words. This keeps happening until the difficult words become easy and appear further down the road as review words. In this way, there is massed repetition within a session followed by spaced repetition between sessions.

    While Schuetze’s findings are interesting, especially about function words, their method and the lack of a control really throws their findings into question. After reading it, I found it wasn’t fit for Research Bites because of these flaws.

    • Just to add to my comment, the article by Serrano doesn’t really seem to be related to spaced repetition as defined in cognitive psychology, with the same information repeated, often based on forgetting curves. This article is just about distributing time, not practice (of previously learned material).

      • Hi Anthony,

        I agree; the series of articles by Serrano, and this one by Serrano and Muñoz are more about intensive vs extensive study than massed vs distributed practice. The 2007 Serrano & Muñoz article is often cited in the dozen or so articles I’ve now read about mass vs spaced practice, especially the quote that I used.

        Just to go back to the Schuetze article, I was, like you, most taken by the discussion of learning function words. I see what you mean about the methodology of the study, but it doesn’t strike me as being as bad as to have no weight at all as evidence.

  2. Hello Geoff,

    Thanks for posting this. I’ll hold my hand up and say over the past few years I’ve been very keen on learning more about research in mainstream education, assuming that with the increased spending power and government support there might be something for ELT to learn. I think I still need to grasp the idea that learning a language simply appears to be very different to learning most other things. Perhaps the thing to research would be the benefits of massed vs distributed practice on performance of a communicative task, rather than recall of linguistic items?

    • Hi Magnus,

      Thanks for this. Good to hear you’re keen to find out more about language learning. Massed versus distributed practice is very much part of explicit learning and in tasks of the sort that Skehan, Robinson, Long and others discuss, it’s not particularly relevant.

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