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Distributed Practice and the UCAT: What you need to know Part 1

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Over the last few years the education sector has been rampant with ideals of “studying smarter not harder”, doing “less work for more reward” and a series of other catch phrases that seem too good to be true. Nevertheless, there is one system that eclipses all others in the research conducted, the widespread implementation and the unanimous praise it has received from scientists, psychologists, students and teachers alike: distributed practice.

In part one of this two part blog series, we look at what distributed practice means, why it works and why you should implement it for your UCAT study.

What is distributed practice?

Distributed practice is essentially the opposite of cramming (massed practice) and it is superior to cramming in practically every manner. The idea is that you do lots of short periods of practice over a long period of time, as opposed to a few long periods of practice over a short period of time. The concept is simple enough, but has been proven to be very effective. The most effective form of distributed practice is as follows: 

  1. Initial mastery — The first step is to learn the skill and understand it. Mastery does not mean that you have perfected the skill, rather, it means that what you will be practicing and the strategies you utilise are correct. The worst thing you can do is learn the wrong way to approach a task and then keep practicing it incorrectly.
  2. Spacing — Once you have mastered the task initially, a period of time passes where you are on the verge of forgetting this information or losing the skill. This is not to say you haven’t been studying, but perhaps the original skill was a Verbal Reasoning strategy and since then you’ve been practicing Abstract Reasoning. 
  3. Retrieval — At this point you should go back over the information you learnt in step 1 and refresh your memory, ensuring that the initial mastery is maintained. Ideally this should be in the form of recall, making notes etc, rather than passive re-reading.
  4. Repetition — You continue this process over several study sessions, continue to perfect your skill and solidify it so it becomes like second nature.

Why does distributed practice work?

There are numerous theories as to why distributed practice is so successful. These theories have fancy names like the ‘study-phase retrieval theory’ and ‘the theory of contextual variability’. The former suggests that the key to developing strong knowledge and skills is through the process of retrieving information. When we recall information previously learnt, the memory becomes more ingrained in our minds. As we increase the gaps between memory retrieval, the relationship between the information and our ability to retrieve it becomes stronger.

The second theory suggests that when we learn with a range of contextual differences (i.e. by learning in a variety of places, times, media and contexts) there is a proven added depth to the study and improved ability to recall information. In cramming, we associate all information learnt to one time, one place and one context. Therefore, when we go to retrieve that information it is all blurred into one memory and it is more difficult to remember correctly.

The reality is that distributed practice probably works due to a combination of both of these factors and more! Either way, it has been proven to be effective so why not use it to your advantage in your UCAT preparation?

Why you should use Distributive Practice for the UCAT

You should use this method of studying in your UCAT preparation because the UCAT exam is a skills based test. The only way to be truly successful in UCAT is by practicing and developing these skills over time. We do not develop skills by cramming two weeks before we need to use them. Imagine trying to cram for a piano recital three weeks before with no prior experience! It’s absurd. Or maybe deciding you are going to practice your serve in tennis for three hours today and trust it will be great in 10 weeks’ time. Unfortunately, this isn’t how skill development works.

To develop quality skills and complex understanding we need to practice over the long-term. We practice musical instruments a little bit every day for a long time because that is the most effective way to learn the skill. This is how you must study for the UCAT: little bits over a long period of time. As the Director of Education for MedEntry, Dr Ray Boyapati says:

            “It’s much better to do 50 lots of 2 than 2 lots of 50.”

This is the essence of distributed practice.

Other benefits include that it is much easier to implement UCAT study in conjunction with academia and your hobbies than it is with cramming. Additionally, you will be forming an excellent study and lifestyle habit that will serve you well for the future, especially through medical school. 

In part 2 of this blog series, we will be looking at how you can implement distributed practice into your UCAT study schedule to optimise your UCAT performance.

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