Monday, February 15, 2016

Varied Practice: Key to Learning New Skills

Charlie Sorrel writes about some fascinating new research on skill development in an article at Fast Company this week.  Sorrel describes research by Johns Hopkins University professor Pablo Celnik.   His studies focus on how people develop new skills.  Celnik has found that how you practice new skills affects the speed with which you acquire and develop those capabilities.    Celnik summarizes his findings:  "What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row."   

Most athletes instinctively understand this finding.  No good coach directs his or her players to engage in the very same practice drills over and over.   Instead, the best coaches vary the routine a bit, while working on the same fundamental skills.   Consider a softball coach working on fielding ground balls.  He or she doesn't just keep pounding grounders at players and asking them to throw the ball to first base.   The coach finds a variety of ways to work on the key skills required to field grounders effectively.  

What's going on when we vary our practice routine a bit?   Celnik describes the process as "reconsolidation."  Natalie Tronson and Jane Taylor have conducted research on the neuroscience of memory.  Consolidation refers to the process by which memories stabilize and solidify over some period of time.   Tronson and Taylor describe reconsolidation as a "distinct process that serves to maintain, strengthen or modify memories."   People retrieve a memory and actively consolidate it again, and in so doing, they strengthen the existing memory.   

Interestingly, Celnik found that reconsolidation works best when you change the task being practiced slightly.   Too much change inhibits the reconsolidation process.   He explains, "If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidation. The modification between sessions needs to be subtle."

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