Distributed Learning and Practice Testing: 2 Things to Do Today to Improve Your Language Learning

If you’re studying a foreign language, researchers say there are two things you can start doing right now to get the best possible results.

Before I get into that, let me back up a minute first.

My son started kindergarten a couple months ago. Something strange goes along with having a kid in school: Somehow I end up having parenting magazines all over the house.

I don’t know how they get here. Neither my wife nor I buy them. Maybe the school sends them home?

People talking on a Dutch street.
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Anyway, those magazines usually have pretty interesting stuff. For example, my wife was reading this month’s issue of Parent & Child magazine from Scholastic and told me about an article on the most effective studying techniques for students called Conquer That Quiz. This led to my searching for the original academic journal article on which Conquer That Quiz was based.

I found it. It was called “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive Educational Psychology.” You can actually read the full article online at the Psychological Science in the Public Interest website.

In the article, Kent State researchers analyzed ten studying techniques and rated them for effectiveness, based on data they found in published, peer-reviewed studies.

The two most effective techniques, by a landslide, were:

  • Distributed Practice
  • Practice Testing

Both of these techniques have been shown time and again to improve student performance. This means that they’ll also be beneficial to you, the language student.

Distributed Practice

Distributed practice is simply spreading your studying activities out over time rather than cramming it all into a single session. For example, if you’re memorizing a list of vocabulary words, you would be better off to study the list once a day for five days rather than studying it five times over one day.

If this sounds familiar to you, that’s because “distributed practice” is basically “spaced repetition,” which I’ve written about before and is a staple in the language learning community.

How far apart should your practice sessions be? The Kent State researchers give a figure: “Criterion performance was best when the lag between sessions was approximately 10–20% of the desired retention interval.” In other words, if you want to remember material for a year (365 days), then you should have a gap of about 36 to 72 days between sessions.

I wouldn’t get too hung up on that figure though. Don’t study something and then lock it away in a vault, only taking it out at a predetermined time. I would guess the most important thing is that you’re getting repeated exposure to the information over time. In other words, I don’t think someone who studies the same vocab every day for 72 days would be worse off than someone who studied it once on day 1 and then again on day 72.

Practice Testing

Let’s say you have a big exam coming up. If you had a choice between studying the material or taking a practice test, which would you choose?

If you want to do as well as possible, science says to opt for the practice test. It is far superior to studying alone.

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I’ve known that taking practice tests improves my real-test performance, but I didn’t know it was such a well-studied phenomenon. According to the article, in the last century several hundred studies have shown the benefits of practice testing, with new research still coming in.

Why is it so effective?

Scientists believe that the act of retrieving a long-term memory strengthens that memory. It’s complicated (as neuroscience tends to be) but basically when you recall a piece of information, you then remember it again but in a different way. This gives your mind multiple pathways to the same info.

Also, testing provides feedback, which allows you to identify areas you need to improve during subsequent study sessions.

Combining the Two Approaches for Language Learning

Distributed practice and practice testing can be used together. Here are a few studying methods or programs that employ both techniques:

  • Studying Flashcards over Time – Drilling flashcards is a form of practice testing. I keep my flashcards in a plastic organizer box and review old cards periodically. My intervals between study sessions are inexact, but I’m sure I get most of the benefit, with minimal planning.
  • Spaced repetition software –  I’ve been resistant to this technology, but I realize it’s more of a resistance to the zealotry of some SRS cultists than to SRS itself. If I accept that distributed practice and practice testing are effective ways to study, then I have to acknowledge that SRS is an effective studying tool.
  • Duolingo – I just discovered Duolingo a few weeks ago, and I love it. It’s basically a series of quizzes presented as games, and the program makes use of spaced repetition.
  • Pimsleur – You’re forced to recall information, and Dr. Pimsleur was the godfather of spaced repetition for language learning.

Wrapping Up

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that you only use distributed practice and practice tests in your studying. But if your learning needs a boost, try these techniques out and see how things go for you.