Leiden Psychology Blog

Learning is a series of sprints, not a marathon

Learning is a series of sprints, not a marathon By Vullioud Pierre-André via SXC

Many students (and people in general) like to mass their efforts to boost short-term performance when an important exam or deadline is approaching. Scientific research points to a more functional and efficient long-term strategy to raise performance.

Who can tough it out the longest?

In endurance sports, many athletes view completing a marathon or an Ironman triathlon as the pinnacle of achievement. The mental toughness it takes to complete such a feat is something that they typically find much pride in. Similarly, in the academic context many students take pride in the self-discipline it takes to study for many hours on end in order to graduate with honors. But after the ceremony is over and the high of achieving the desired goal wears off, the question is: was the learning process actually functional and efficient?

The downside of massed training

In endurance sports repetitive strain injuries are a common occurrence, especially when people get older, because of the cumulative effect of the gradual tearing down of their muscle and lack of adequate recovery. In cognitive work consequences are usually not as dramatic, but the extended hours of study come at the cost of concentration and mental fatigue. Typically, massing study prior to an exam does not impair short-term performance, but the loss in quality of learning can be found in long-term retention. Much better yields in learning efficiency are found when people spread their study time over multiple shorter sessions, and the same applies to learning procedural skills.

Our research group recently replicated this positive effect of spacing practice in training simple and complex motor tasks required for laparoscopic surgery. A group of medical students who practiced their laparoscopic motor skills on a surgical simulator for three 75-minute sessions once a week outperformed peers who trained their skills for 225 minutes in one session; immediately after training as well as two weeks post-training. Although the benefits of spacing practice are consistently outlined in the scientific literature, much can be gained by a more thorough application of the principle of spacing in learning environments.

Increasing learning, engagement and recovery after training

Aside from improvements in learning, recovery after training is also increased when people have multiple short training sessions on different types of tasks, rather than spending a long time on a single one. Similar to endurance athletes - who don’t allow recovery of their body because they repeatedly (over)use the same muscles - massing one kind of cognitive task can impair recovery of the brain regions exercised as well as recovery from fatigue in general. A common response to this overuse is for people to drop everything and disengage in order to cope with mental fatigue and their recovery needs.

A more functional and efficient approach is to strategically design training activities in such a way that people can recover from one learning task while they engage in a different one that does not exercise the same (or similar) modalities. Hence, learning rates, engagement, and recovery during training can be optimized if different types of tasks are spaced into multiple, distinct, one-to-two hour sessions.

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