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Do spacing and self-testing predict learning outcomes?

Written By: Daryn Egan-Simon
3 min read
Do spacing and self-testing predict learning outcomes?

Original research by:

Rodriguez F, Kataoka S, Rivas MJ et al. (2018) Do spacing and self-testing predict learning outcomes? Active Learning in Higher Education: 1-15.


The research explored whether using spacing and self-testing strategies was related to final course grades for an undergraduate biology class. I was drawn to this paper because I have read a lot about the effectiveness of spacing and self-testing and wanted to see if this classroom-based study found similar results to other lab-based research.

What is the research underpinning the study?

Spacing involves the breaking down of study sessions into smaller segments, as opposed to cramming over a shorter period of time. Self-testing on the other hand, involves assessing one’s understanding by completing quizzes and practice exam questions. The authors maintain that previous studies have shown that both self-testing and spacing can have a positive impact on learning. However, much of the research has been conducted in laboratories rather than classrooms (Rodriguez et al., 2018).

The research attempted to answer four questions:

  • What study strategies do students report using, and to what extent do students utilize spacing and self-testing?
  • Are spacing and self-testing positively correlated with learning outcomes?
  • Are other study strategies correlated with learning outcomes?
  • Do students’ study strategies predict learning outcomes after accounting for important student characteristics?

How did they conduct the research?

The research was conducted at a university in the United States and involved 272 biology students. As part of the study, the students completed a 10-week biochemistry course. This involved three weekly lectures with interactive elements such as quizzes which counted towards their final grades, a weekly discussion, instructor assigned reading, three open-book midterm tests and one final examination. The students completed an end-of-course study skills questionnaire which was administered during the last class and before the final examination.

The study skills questionnaire focused on two aspects of the students’ study skills; study patterns (spacing vs cramming) and study strategies (self-testing, watching videos, studying with friends etc.) The students were asked to limit their choices of strategies to a maximum of three. The authors maintain that this was done ‘to capture the primary strategies students used to study for the course.’ (Rodriguez et al., 2018, p. 6).

Once all data was collected, the researchers used two-tailed tests to examine whether using spacing or self-testing strategies was related to the final course grade. They then used a 2×2 analysis of variance (ANOVA) to try and understand whether there were basic main effects of studying patterns and self-testing strategies on final course grade. Finally, the researchers used regression analyses to explore whether self-testing was predictive of the final course grade after taking into account student demographics and prior achievement

What were the key findings?

In total, 63.91 per cent of students reported spacing and 36.09 per cent reported cramming for the course. However, the researchers found no relationship between using spacing versus cramming on the final course grade.

The 53.93 per cent of students who reported using self-testing did have higher grades than those who did not, even with equal access to notes during examinations. The researchers also noted that there was a marginal effect for recopying/condensing notes. However, no other strategies significantly related to final course grades. Finally, they found that ‘the predictive relationship between self-testing on the final course grade was significant even after accounting for students’ ethnicity, age, gender, low-income/first generation status, as well as SAT scores.’ (Rodriguez et al., 2018, p. 12).

What are the limitations of this study?

  • The research used self-reporting surveys to measure students’ study patterns so might not adequately capture studying behaviours.
  • As the research only studied one course, at one university, results may not be generalised to other subjects and courses.
  • The research only focused on undergraduates so results might not be applicable to other stages/ phases of education.

Impact on practice

What ideas might you adopt for your own classroom from the research?

  • How to teach students the most effective strategies for the self-testing of subject material.
  • Consider designing a structured course which incorporates the use of pre-lesson reading, interactive quizzes and regular self-testing.
  • Encourage students to reread, copy and condense notes during independent study.
  • Try to ensure that an effective balance between study patterns and study strategies is embedded throughout the subject.

What questions does the research raise for teachers?

  • What are the most effective strategies for self-testing, for example: quizzing or practice exam questions?
  • How can students best be taught to develop their ability to self-test effectively?
  • Should students be spending more time reviewing and condensing notes if it has a positive impact on their learning and overall grades?
  • How can study patterns and study strategies be used in conjunction to maximise students’ learning?
  • Are there other more effective strategies for studying such as interleaving and retrieval practice?

Want to know more?

Dunlosky J, Rawson KA, Marsh EJ et al. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1): 4–58.

Morehead K, Rhodes MG and DeLozier S (2016) Instructor and student knowledge of study strategies. Memory 24(2): 257–271.

Warburton N and Volet S (2013) Enhancing self-directed learning through a content quiz group learning assignment. Active Learning in Higher Education 14(1): 9–22.

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