Recording authentic student study behavior
A recently published study by Carvalho, Sana, and Yan (1) contributes to the evidence base supporting spaced practice by approaching the question about the benefits of spaced practice differently: They recorded the authentic study behavior of students enrolled in an online course. The online course consisted of 12 units and required students to complete readings, watch video lectures, and engage in activities. Each week concluded with a unit quiz and students took a final exam covering the entire material after the last unit. The researchers used data that was recorded in the online course platform to analyze student behavior (i.e., learning analytics): number of times students logged in and engaged with tasks (i.e., number of sessions), intervals between interacting with tasks, total time spent on activities, activity completion rate, and so on. As indicator for spacing they used the number of sessions students took to complete a unit – with more sessions translating to more spacing. What is neat about this approach is that it allows capturing natural student learning behavior in an authentic learning environment. Study behavior data of 639 students was analyzed.
Relationship between student ability, self-regulated spaced practice, and performance
Three main outcomes emerged from this study:
More spacing was associated with higher performance on quizzes – independent of the total time spent on a unit or student performance on a pretest (i.e., student ability). Put differently, when students used more spacing when interacting with the unit material they performed better on the quizzes.
More able students tended to space their study sessions more than less able students. However, and this is intriguing, less able students benefitted much more from spacing than more able students: For low ability students, more spacing was clearly associated with higher quiz performance, whereas, for high ability students, quiz performance was not associated with spacing – they performed well independent of spacing.
Student engagement with the activities in the course moderated the relationship between spacing and quiz performance. When students completed less activities in the online course, spacing was more strongly associated with higher quiz performance. The authors explain that “spacing out study appears to buffer students against the negative effects of otherwise passive learning”. Put differently, students who are less motivated to complete learning tasks may be able to make up for this by spacing their study sessions.