How does distribution of Practice influence our Learning process?

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Starting from simple conditioning to more complex forms of verbal learning, the learning trials may be massed or distributed. The massed training refers to a situation, in which the learning trials are given in a rapid succession with minimum possible time interval in between trials. In contrast, in distributed training, some longer time interval is allowed in between learning trials. The point here is the relative economy of either of the training procedures. Which one is better – massed or distributed- in terms of the rate and amount of learning? It has been generally found that the distributed trials result in faster learning compared to the massed trials for simple conditioning as well as for complex forms of verbal learning. Underwood has cited several studies to show that conditioning takes place more rapidly by distributed than by massed trials.

What is the effect of distribution of trials on extinction? Though the results are not fully conclusive, it is generally observed that massing of trials during the extinction phase accelerates the process of extinction. In both learning and extinction, the distributed condition produces better results than the massed condition. Why is it so? With each response or a trial finished the subject experiences some amount of physiological fatigue, which is called reactive inhibition. The fatigue inhibits the response, which produces it, but it dissipates, if certain amount of rest period is given in between trials. As compared to the distributed method, the massed method results in greater accumulation of physiological fatigue within a shorter period of time. The accumulated inhibition depresses the rate of learning or results in quicker extinction for the massed trials. On the other hand, in distributed method, the fatigue dissipates during the rest period resulting in lesser amount of inhibition, and consequently in better learning and slower extinction.

Some psychologists argue that the rest period provides an opportunity for the neural traces of our learning to be organized and consolidated. During the rest period, the intense external stimulation ceases allowing internal consolidation to take place. Another advantage associated with distributed learning is that during the rest period, the tendency for incorrect associations (errors) is likely to be forgotten faster than correct ones because the incorrect associations do not get any positive reinforcement. Because of differential forgetting (the incorrect associations weaken much faster compared to the correct ones), the correct associations gain an advantage for being retained and thereby, facilitating the progress of learning.

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Nearly the same kind of explanation holds good regarding the effects of massed and distributed practice trials on the rate and amount of human motor and verbal learning. It is pertinent to mention here that the distribution of practice/learning trials is only one of the factors influencing the progress of learning. Its effect varies a great deal for different tasks, for different subjects, and for differing degrees of motivation. The advantage of distributed practice diminishes as the learning task becomes more complex, and the lists become similar to one another. These and other related findings suggest that the matters of massed practice and distributed practice are by no means clear.

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