Does Practice Really Make Perfect?
Practice refers to learners repeating a skill over time. It begins with the rehearsal of the new skill in working memory, the motor cortex, and the cerebellum. Later, the skill memory is recalled and additional practice follows. The quality of the practice and the learner’s knowledge base will largely determine the outcome of each practice session.
Over the long term, repeated practice causes the brain to assign extra neurons to the task, much as a computer assigns more memory for a complex program. The assignment of these additional neurons is more or less on a permanent basis. Professional keyboard and string musicians, for example, have larger portions of the motor cortex devoted to controlling finger and hand movements. Furthermore, the earlier their training started, the bigger the motor cortex (Schlaug, Jancke, Huang, & Steinmetz, 1995). If practice is stopped altogether, the neurons that are no longer being used are eventually assigned to other tasks, and skill mastery will decline (Amunts et al., 1997). In other words, use it or lose it!
The old adage that “practice makes perfect” is rarely true. It is very possible to practice the same skill repeatedly with no increase in achievement or accuracy of application. Think of the people you know who have been driving, cooking, or even teaching for many years with no improvement in their skills. I am a self-taught bowler, and although I have been bowling for 25 years, I do not improve. My bowling scores are embarrassingly low and remain there despite years of repeated bowling. Why is this?
How is it possible for one to continuously practice a skill with no resulting improvement in performance?
Conditions for Successful Practice
For practice to improve performance, four conditions must be met (Hunter, 2004):
1. The learner must be sufficiently motivated to want to improve performance.
2. The learner must have all the knowledge necessary to understand the different ways that the new knowledge or skill can be applied.
3. The learner must understand how to apply the knowledge to deal with a particular situation.
4. The learner must be able to analyze the results of that application and know what needs to be changed to improve performance in the future.
Teachers help learners meet these conditions when they do the following:
•Start by selecting the smallest amount of material that will have maximum meaning for the learner.
•Model the application process step-by-step. Studies show that the brain also uses observation as a means for determining the spatial learning needed to master a motor skill (Petrosini et al., 2003).
•Insist that the practice occur in the learner’s presence over a short period of time while the student is focused on the learning.
•Watch the practice and provide the students with prompt and specific feedback on what variable needs to be altered to correct and enhance the performance. Feedback seems to be particularly important during the learning of complex motor skills (Wulf, Shea, & Matschiner, 1998).
Guided Practice, Independent Practice, and Feedback
Practice does make permanent, thereby aiding in the retention of learning. Consequently, we want to ensure that students practice the new learning correctly from the beginning. This early practice (referred to as guided practice), then, is done in the presence of the teacher, who can now offer corrective feedback to help students analyze and improve their practice. When the practice is correct, the teacher can then assign independent practice, in which the students can rehearse the skill on their own to enhance retention.
This strategy leads to perfect practice, and, as Vince Lombardi said, “Perfect practice makes perfect.” In my case, I go bowling every few months to be with the same close friends, who are very busy professionals. Our bowling is noncompetitive and is simply the means that allows us to catch up on our lives, so our scores are of little importance. Thus, I have no motivation to improve—and, believe me, I don’t.
Teachers should avoid giving students independent practice before guided practice. Because practice makes permanent, allowing students to rehearse something for the first time while away from the teacher is very risky. If they unknowingly practice the skill incorrectly, then they will learn the incorrect method well! This will present serious problems for both the teacher and the learner later on because it is very difficult to change a skill that has been practiced and remembered, even if it is not correct.
Unlearning and Relearning a Skill. If a learner practices a skill incorrectly but well, unlearning and relearning that skill correctly is very difficult. The degree to which the unlearning and relearning processes are successful will depend on the following:
•Age of the learner (i.e., the younger the learner, the easier to relearn)
•Length of time the skill has been practiced incorrectly (i.e., the longer the practice period, the more difficult to change)
•Degree of motivation to relearn (i.e., the greater the desire for change, the more effort used to bring about change)
Sometimes, students who are young, and who have practiced the skill wrong for only a brief time, are so annoyed at having wasted their time with the incorrect practice that they lose motivation to learn the skill correctly.
Practice and Rehearsal Over Time Increases Retention
Hunter (2004) suggested that teachers use two different types of practice over time, massed and distributed. (Here, Hunter uses practice to include rehearsal.) Practicing new learning during time periods that are very close together is called massed practice. This produces fast learning, as when you may mentally rehearse a new telephone number if you are unable to write it down. Immediate memory is involved here, and the information can fade in seconds if it is not rehearsed quickly.
Teachers provide massed practice when they allow students to try different examples of applying new learning in a short period of time. Cramming for an exam is an example of massed practice. Material can be quickly chunked into working memory but can also be quickly dropped or forgotten if more sustained practice does not follow soon. This happens because the material has no further meaning, and thus the need for long-term retention disappears. Sustained practice over time, called distributed practice or the spacing effect, is the key to retention. If you want to remember that new telephone number later on, you will need to use it repeatedly over time. Thus, practice that is distributed over longer periods of time sustains meaning and consolidates the learnings into long-term storage in a form that will ensure accurate recall and applications in the future. It is important to note that the distributed practice is effective only if the learner is directly processing and focused on the learning, rather than just casually repeating it (Greene, 2008).
Recent studies have demonstrated the power of distributed practice. One study found that 5-year-old children benefited from distributed practice in their phonics lessons (Seabrook, Brown, & Solity, 2005). Another study using distributed practice over a six-week period found a significant improvement in the performance of middle school students compared to those in the control group (Metcalfe, Kornell, & Son, 2007). Researchers also found that spacing out practice boosted eighth-grade students’ recall of the material in their U.S. history course when tested nine months after the final exposure (Carpenter, Pashler, & Cepeda, 2009).
Effective practice, then, starts with massed practice for fast learning and proceeds to distributed practice later for retention. As a result, the student is continually practicing previously learned skills throughout the year(s). Each test should not only test new material but also allow students to practice important older learnings. This method not only helps in retention but also reminds students that the learnings will be useful for the future, not just for the time when they were first learned and tested.
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Carpenter, S. K., Pashler, H., & Cepeda, N. J. (2009). Using tests to enhance 8th grade students’ retention of U.S. history facts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 23, 760–771.
Greene, R. L. (2008). Repetition and spacing effects. In J. Byrne (Ed.), Learning and memory: A comprehensive reference, 2008 (pp. 65–78). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.
Hunter, M. (2004). Mastery teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Metcalfe, J., Kornell, N., & Son, L. K. (2007). A cognitive-science based programme to enhance study efficacy in a high and low-risk setting. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology, 19, 743–768.
Petrosini, L., Graziano, A., Mandolesi, L., Neri, P., Molinari, M., & Leggio, M. G. (2003). Watch how to do it! New advances in learning by observation. Brain Research Reviews, 42, 252–264.
Schlaug, G., Jancke, L., Huang, Y. X., & Steinmetz, H. (1995). In-vivo evidence of structural brain asymmetry in musicians. Science, 267, 699–701.
Seabrook, R., Brown, G. D. A., & Solity, J. E. (2005). Distributed and massed practice: From laboratory to classroom. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 107–122.
Wulf, G., Shea, C. H., & Matschiner, S. (1998). Frequent feedback enhances complex motor skill learning. Journal of Motor Behavior, 30, 180–192.