How mixing up your routine can help you learn faster


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Mistakes, said James Joyce, are the portals of discovery. Artists have long known the benefits of introducing error and switching things up to make progress. But could purposefully modifying your technique also help you learn? According to a new study at Johns Hopkins, when learning a new skill, making regular changes to your practice sessions can help you master things a lot faster than just repeating things the same way each time.


Task master

For the study, 86 healthy volunteers were asked to learn a new computer-based motor skill. The researchers discovered that those participants who quickly adapted to a modified second practice session performed better than those who had merely repeated their original task. "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," says senior study author Dr. Pablo A. Celnik.

The team say their results support the idea of "reconsolidation" — a process in which motor skills are strengthened by the recall and modification of memories to create new knowledge or skills. They suggest their work — which is published in the journal Current Biology — has implications beyond developing skills like learning to play an instrument or a excel at sport: it could also for help patients recovering from a stroke and other neurological conditions regain lost motor function.


Feeling the pinch

Participants in the study were asked to learn and perform an isometric pinch task using a force transducer — basically, squeezing with the fingers on a special controller to move a cursor across a screen. The screen test featured five windows and a “home” space. Participants were asked to move their cursor from home to each of the various windows in a predetermined pattern as quickly and accurately as possible. They each learned the task over the course of two or three 45-minute sessions. The volunteers were randomly assigned to three groups and each group learned the task in a different way.

The first group completed the initial training session, repeating it exactly six hours later and then again the next day. The second group completed its first session but then, after the same six-hour break, was given a subtly altered second training session for which the amount of force needed to move the cursor had been changed. This meant group members constantly had to adjust their technique despite being only subconsciously aware of the modifications. The next day, they were asked to repeat the original task given during the first session. The third control group took part in the training only twice, performing exactly the same task just once each day.


Consolidating gains

The results showed that, in the group that had been given the altered second session, the number of participants who performed faster and more accurately was nearly double that in the first group who had been asked to repeat the same task. The third group, who had only two training sessions, performed about 25 less well than those in the first group. The greatest level of improvement was among those subjects who were able to adapt quickly to the change in requirements. Alterations in training have to be small, Celnik says — something like a slight adjustment in the size or weight of a baseball bat, tennis racket or soccer ball from one practice session to the next. Some music teachers recommend altering the size of musical notation to keep the eye focused on the score when learning.

However, further (though as yet unpublished) studies by Celnik's team, suggest that changing a practice session too much — like playing badminton in between tennis matches — has no significant effect on learning. "If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidation," he says. "The modification between sessions needs to be subtle." Celnik’s team is keen to explore the practical outcome of their research: “Our results are important because little was known before about how reconsolidation works in relation to motor skill development. This shows how simple manipulations during training can lead to more rapid and larger motor skill gains. The goal is to develop novel behavioral interventions and training schedules that give people more improvement for the same amount of practice time.”

Or, as Joyce might have said: “Longest way round is the shortest way home.”