Verbal and spatial acquisition as a function of distributed practice and code-specific interference

  • Adam P. Young
  • Alice F. HealyEmail author
  • Matt Jones
  • Lyle E. BourneJr.


Theories of memory must account for memory performance during both the acquisition (i.e., ongoing learning) and retention (i.e., following disuse) stages of training. One factor affecting both stages is whether repeated encounters with a set of material occur with no delay between blocks (massed) or alternating with another intervening task (spaced). Whereas the retention advantage for spaced over massed practice is well accounted for by some current theories of memory, theories of decay or general interference predict massed, rather than spaced, advantages during acquisition. In a series of 3 experiments, we show that the effects of spacing on acquisition depend on the relationship between primary and delay tasks. Specifically, massed acquisition advantages occur only in the presence of code-specific interference (the engagement in two alternating tasks both emphasizing the same processing code, such as verbal or spatial processing codes; e.g., learning letter–number pairs and reading text), whereas spaced acquisition advantages are observed only when code-specific interference is absent. These results present a challenge for major theories of memory. Furthermore, we argue that code-specific interference is important for researchers of the spacing and interleaving effects to take into consideration, as the relationship between the alternating tasks used has a substantial impact on acquisition performance.


Spacing effect Interleaving Acquisition Interference Memory 



  1. Abushanab, B., & Bishara, A. J. (2013). Memory and metacognition for piano melodies: Illusory advantages of fixed- over random-order practice. Memory & Cognition, 41, 928–937. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Annis, J., Malmberg, K. J., Criss, A. H., & Shiffrin, R. M. (2013). Sources of interference in recognition testing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 39, 1365–1376. Google Scholar
  3. Archer, J. E., & Bourne, L. E., Jr. (1956). Inverted alphabet printing as a function of intertrial rest and sex. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 52, 322–328. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Atkinson, R. C., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1968). Human memory: A proposed system and its control processes. In K. W. Spence & J. T. Spence (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation: II. Oxford, UK: Academic Press. Google Scholar
  5. Baddeley, A. (1992). Working memory. Science, 255, 556–559. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bjork, R. A., & Bjork, E. L. (1992). A new theory of disuse and an old theory of stimulus fluctuation. In A. F. Healy, S. M. Kosslyn, & R. M. Shiffrin (Eds.), From learning processes to cognitive processes: Essays in honor of William K. Estes (Vol. 2, pp. 35–67). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  7. Bourne, L. E., Jr., & Archer, E. J. (1956). Time continuously on target as a function of distribution of practice. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 51, 25–33. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Cepeda, N. J., Pashler, H., Vul, E., Wixted, J. T., & Rohrer, D. (2006). Distributed practice in verbal recall tasks: A review and quantitative synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 354–380. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Deisig, N., Sandoz, J., Giurfa, M., & Lachnit, H. (2007). The trial-spacing effect in olfactory patterning discriminations in honeybees. Behavioural Brain Research, 176, 314–322. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Gabriele, T. E., Hall, C. R., & Lee, T. D. (1989). Cognition in motor learning: Imagery effects on contextual interference. Human Movement Science, 8, 227–245. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Hall, K. G., Domingues, D. A., & Cavazos, R. (1994). Contextual interference effects with skilled baseball players. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 78, 835–841. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Hardt, O., Nader, K., & Nadel, L. (2013). Decay happens: The role of active forgetting in memory. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17, 111–120. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Healy, A. F., Wohldmann, E. L., & Bourne, L. E., Jr. (2005). The procedural reinstatement principle: Studies on training, retention, and transfer. In A. F. Healy (Ed.), Experimental cognitive psychology and its applications (pp. 59–71). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Heffner, C. L. (2001). Psychology 101. Retrieved from
  15. Hintzman, D. L. (1974). Theoretical implications of the spacing effect. In R. L. Solso (Ed.), Theories in cognitive psychology: The Loyola symposium (pp. 77–99). Potomac, MD: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  16. Jenkins, J. G., & Dallenbach, K. M. (1924). Obliviscence during sleep and waking. The American Journal of Psychology, 35, 605–612. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Kahana, M. J., & Howard, M. W. (2005). Spacing and lag effects in free recall of pure lists. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 12, 159–164. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L., III. (2007). Expanding retrieval practice promotes short-term retention, but equally spaced retrieval enhances long-term retention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 33, 704–719. Google Scholar
  19. Lee, T. D., & Genovese, E. D. (1988). Distribution of practice in motor skill acquisition: Learning and performance effects reconsidered. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 59, 277–287. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Lohse, K. R., & Healy, A. F. (2012). Exploring the contributions of declarative and procedural information to training: A test of the procedural reinstatement principle. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 1, 65–72. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Maddox, G. B., & Balota, D. A. (2015). Retrieval practice and spacing effects in young and older adults: An examination of the benefits of desirable difficulty. Memory & Cognition, 43, 760–774. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Malmberg, K. J., & Shiffrin, R. M. (2005). The “one-shot” hypothesis for context storage. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 31, 322-336. Google Scholar
  23. McGeoch, J. A. (1932). Forgetting and the law of disuse. Psychological Review, 39, 352–370. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Milner, B., Corkin, S., & Teuber, H.-L. (1968). Further analysis of the hippocampal amnesic syndrome: 14-year follow-up study of H.M. Neuropsychologia, 6, 215–234. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. O’Reilly, R. C., Bhattacharyya, R., Howard, M. D., & Ketz, N. (2014). Complementary learning systems. Cognitive Science, 38, 1229-1248. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Pan, S., Tajran, J., Lovelett, J., Osuna, J., & Rickard, T. (2017). Is it preterite or imperfect? Investigating the interleaving effect for Spanish verb conjugation skills. Poster presented at the meeting of the Psychonomic Society, Vancouver, CA.Google Scholar
  27. Pavlik, P. I., Jr., & Anderson, J. R. (2005). Practice and forgetting effects on vocabulary memory: An activation-based model of the spacing effect. Cognitive Science, 29, 559–586. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Polyn, S. M., Norman, K. A., & Kahana, M. J. (2009). A context maintenance and retrieval model of organizational processes in free recall. Psychological Review, 116, 129–156. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Raaijmakers, J. G. W. (2003). Spacing and repetition effects in human memory: Application of the SAM model. Cognitive Science, 27, 431–452. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Raaijmakers, J. G., & Shiffrin, R. M. (1981). Search of associative memory. Psychological Review, 88, 93-134. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2013). Relearning attenuates the benefits and costs of spacing. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 142, 1113–1129. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Roediger, H. L., III, & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological Science, 17, 249–255. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Rudy, J. (2014). The neurobiology of learning and memory (2nd ed.). Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.Google Scholar
  34. Schneider, V. I., Healy, A. F., Ericsson, K. A., & Bourne, L. E., Jr. (1995). The effects of contextual interference on the acquisition and retention of logical rules. In A. F. Healy, & L. E. Bourne Jr. (Eds.), Learning and memory of knowledge and skills: Durability and specificity (pp. 95–131). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Shea, J. B., & Morgan, R. L. (1979). Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 5, 179–187. Google Scholar
  36. Shiffrin, R. M., & Steyvers, M. (1997). A model for recognition memory: REM—Retrieving effectively from memory. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 4, 145-166. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Squire, L. R., Genzel, L., Wixted, J. T., & Morris, R. G. (2015). Memory consolidation. Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, 7, a021766. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sunsay, C., & Bouton, M. E. (2008). Analysis of a trail-spacing effect with relatively long intertrial intervals. Learning & Behavior, 36, 104–115. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Taylor, K., & Rohrer, D. (2010). The effects of interleaved practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 24, 837–848. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Thorndike, E. L. (1913). Educational psychology: The psychology of learning (Vol. II). New York, NY: Teachers College, Columbia University.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Wickens, C. D. (2008). Multiple resources and mental workload. Human Factors, 50, 449–455. CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Adam P. Young
    • 1
  • Alice F. Healy
    • 1
    Email author
  • Matt Jones
    • 1
  • Lyle E. BourneJr.
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Colorado BoulderBoulderUSA

Personalised recommendations