Practice Makes Perfect – or Not?

Being a glutton for learning (and always looking for something to read), I recently put aside my collection of best sellers and dove into How We Learn and the Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, by Benedict Carey. A science and medical reporter for the New York Times, Carey presents a light-hearted approach to re-evaluating some of our common assumptions about how best to study and learn. You know the drill – Find a quiet place to study, without distractions. Put away your electronic devices. Study in the same place every day. Make studying into a routine. Sound familiar?

After a detailed description of brain biology, Carey presents research to support the following ideas:

  • Any memory has two strengths – a storage strength and a retrieval strength. Storage strength is a measure of how well learned something is. It builds up steadily with studying and more sharply with use. When you deliberately commit something to memory (like your address or Social Security number), it’s there forever. Retrieval strength is a measure of how easily some piece of information comes to mind. It, too, increases with studying and with use. Without use, however, retrieval strength drops off quickly.


  • The environment (or context) in which a memory is formed (or something is learned) has an impact on retention. When content is learned in a variety of environments, recall improves because your brain has more “cues” with which it can make connections.


  • People learn more and retain it much longer when study time is “distributed” or broken into small sessions. You learn faster by studying for three, 10-minute sessions over a period of three days than by “cramming” for 60 minutes. You don’t work any harder or longer, but you remember more for a longer period of time. The most effective way to build a knowledge base is to review the information one or two days after initial study, then a week later, then a month later, then less often.


  • The harder your brain has to work to dig out a memory, the greater the increase in learning retrieval and storage strength. Things are impressed better by active than by passive repetition. If you are trying to memorize something, read it for about 30% of your study time and then practice reciting it out loud from memory for the remaining 70% of the time.


  • Any form of testing, even self-testing, has a profound effect on final performance. Pretesting, even guessing, engages your brain in a different way than straight memorization does and deepens the impact of the correct answers.


  • Creative problem solving involves a series of mental steps:
    • Preparation – the initial time you spend wrestling with a problem and working to a point where you’ve exhausted all ideas
    • Incubation – the time which begins when you put the problem aside and don’t think about it deliberately (though your brain is thinking about it subconsciously)
    • Illumination – the “aha” moment when the solution appears to you
    • Verification – checking to make sure your results are correct and work


  • Being interrupted while working on an assignment makes the experience more memorable. Once people become absorbed in a task, they have an urge to finish. It keeps the task “top of mind.” Assigning five short papers on a given topic during a semester results in more learning than assigning a single term paper at the end. We should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck; this keeps the project foremost in our minds and allows ideas to percolate.


  • Brute force repetition is not the best way to learn a skill. Varied practice is more effective than focused practice because it forces us to internal general rules of motor adjustment that apply to any situation. Repeated practice on one skill actually slows us down. Varied practice produces a slower initial rate of improvement but greater accumulation of skill and learning over time. Varied practice methods include breaking up study time, mixing up study locations, and interleaving (mixing up related but distinct material during study time or surrounding new material with material/content you already know). Mixed-up practice is a way of waking up the brain – making it see something that’s out of order and process the information more deeply.


  • Although we don’t know exactly how it happens, sleep improves retention and comprehension of what was studied the day before. Each of our sleep stages helps us to consolidate learning in a different way.


So why do I care about all this brain research? After all, I’m not in school. I’m not concerned about grades. However, I AM in the business of developing training programs and products for adult learners. Although I can’t impact the sleep patterns of my audience, I CAN incorporate brain science principles to make learning easier and more lasting.

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