practice

Practice counts! So does talent

The thing to remember about Ericsson’s famous expertise research, showing us the vital importance of deliberate practice in making an expert, is that it was challenging the long-dominant view that natural-born talent is all-important. But Gladwell’s popularizing of Ericsson’s “10,000 hours” overstates the case, and of course people are only too keen to believe that any height is achievable if you just work hard enough.

The much more believable story is that, yes, practice is vital — a great deal of the right sort of practice — but we can’t disavow “natural” abilities entirely.

References: 

Campitelli, G., & Gobet F. (2011).  Deliberate Practice. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 20(5), 280 - 285.

Campitelli, G., & Gobet, F. (2008). The role of practice in chess: A longitudinal study. Learning and Individual Differences, 18, 446–458.

Gobet, F., & Campitelli, G. (2007). The role of domain-specific practice, handedness and starting age in chess. Developmental Psychology, 43, 159–172.

Hambrick, D. Z., & Meinz, E. J. (2011). Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20(5), 275 –279. doi:10.1177/0963721411422061

Hambrick, D.Z., & Engle, R.W. (2002). Effects of domain knowledge, working memory capacity and age on cognitive performance: An investigation of the knowledge-is-power hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology, 44, 339–387.

Hambrick, D.Z., Libarkin, J.C., Petcovic, H.L., Baker, K.M., Elkins, J., Callahan, C., et al. (2011). A test of the circumvention-of-limits hypothesis in geological bedrock mapping. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Published online Oct 17, 2011.

Hambrick, D.Z., & Oswald, F.L. (2005). Does domain knowledge moderate involvement of working memory capacity in higher level cognition? A test of three models. Journal of Memory and Language, 52, 377–397.

Meinz, E. J., & Hambrick, D. Z. (2010). Deliberate Practice Is Necessary but Not Sufficient to Explain Individual Differences in Piano Sight-Reading Skill. Psychological Science, 21(7), 914–919. doi:10.1177/0956797610373933

 

tags strategies: 

tags memworks: 

Attributes of effective practice

One of my perennial themes is the importance of practice, and in the context of developing expertise, I have talked of ‘deliberate practice’ (a concept articulated by the well-known expertise researcher K. Anders Ericsson). A new paper in the journal Psychology of Music reports on an interesting study that shows how the attributes of music practice change as music students develop in expertise. Music is probably the most studied domain in expertise research, but I think we can gain some general insight from this analysis. Here’s a summary of the findings.

References: 

Hallam, S., Rinta, T., Varvarigou, M., Creech, a., Papageorgi, I., Gomes, T., & Lanipekun, J. (2012). The development of practising strategies in young people. Psychology of Music, 40(5), 652–680. doi:10.1177/0305735612443868

tags study: 

tags strategies: 

More about motor memory

I don’t often talk about motor or skill memory — that is, the memory we use when we type or drive a car or play the piano. It’s one of the more mysterious domains of memory. We all know, of course, that this is a particularly durable kind of memory. It’s like riding a bicycle, we say — meaning that it’s something we’re not likely to have forgotten, something that will come back to us very readily, even if it’s been a very long time since we last used the skill.

References: 

tags strategies: 

tags memworks: 

The most effective learning balances same and different context

I recently reported on a finding that memories are stronger when the pattern of brain activity is more closely matched on each repetition, a finding that might appear to challenge the long-standing belief that it’s better to learn in different contexts. Because these two theories are very important for effective learning and remembering, I want to talk more about this question of encoding variability, and how both theories can be true.

tags memworks: 

tags study: 

tags strategies: 

The value of intensive practice

Let’s talk about the cognitive benefits of learning and using another language.

In a recent news report, I talked about the finding that intensive learning of a very novel language significantly grew several brain regions, of which two were positively associated with language proficiency. These regions were the right hippocampus and the left superior temporal gyrus. Growth of the first of these probably reflects the learning of a great many new words, and the second may reflect heavy use of the phonological loop (a part of working memory).

tags strategies: 

tags lifestyle: 

Acquiring expertise through deliberate practice

K. Anders Ericsson, the guru of research into expertise, makes a very convincing case for the absolutely critical importance of what he terms “deliberate practice”, and the minimal role of what is commonly termed “talent”. I have written about this question of talent and also about the principles of expertise. Here I would like to talk briefly about Ericsson’s concept of deliberate practice.

Most people, he suggests, spend very little (if any) time engaging in deliberate practice even in those areas in which they wish to achieve some level of expertise. Experts, on the other hand, only achieve their expertise after several years (at least ten, in general) of maintaining high levels of regular deliberate practice.

What distinguishes deliberate practice from less productive practice? Ericsson suggests several factors are of importance:

The acquisition of expert performance needs to be broken down into a sequence of attainable training tasks.

  • Each of these tasks requires a well-defined goal.
  • Feedback for each step must be provided.
  • Repetition is needed — but that repetition is not simple; rather the student should be provided with opportunities that gradually refine his performance.
  • Attention is absolutely necessary — it is not enough to simply mechanically “go through the motions”.
  • The aspiring expert must constantly and attentively monitor her progress, adjusting and correcting her performance as required.

For these last two reasons, deliberate practice is limited in duration. Whatever the particular field of endeavor, there seems a remarkable consistency in the habits of elite performers that suggests 4 to 5 hours of deliberate practice per day is the maximum that can be maintained. This, of course, cannot all be done at one time without resting. When the concentration flags, it is time to rest — this most probably is after about an hour. But the student must train himself up to this level; the length of time he can concentrate will increase with practice.

Higher levels of concentration are often associated with longer sleeping, in particular in the form of day-time naps.

Not all practice is, or should be, deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is effortful and rarely enjoyable. Some practice is however, what Ericsson terms “playful interaction”, and presumably provides a motivational force — it should not be despised!

In general, experts reduce the amount of time they spend on deliberate practice as they age. It seems that, once a certain level of expertise has been achieved, it is not necessary to force yourself to continue the practice at the same level in order to maintain your skill. However, as long as you wish to improve, a high level of deliberate practice is required.

This article first appeared in the Memory Key Newsletter for November 2005

References: 

Ericsson, K.A. 1996. The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. Anders Ericsson (ed.), The Road to Excellence: The acquisition of expert performance in the arts and sciences, sports, and games. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

tags strategies: 

tags study: 

The most effective way of spacing your learning

We don’t deliberately practice our memories of events — not as a rule, anyway. But we don’t need to — because just living our life is sufficient to bring about the practice. We remember happy, or unpleasant, events to ourselves, and we recount our memories to other people. Some will become familiar stories that we re-tell again and again. But facts, the sort of information we learn in formal settings such as school and university, these are not something we tend to repeatedly recount to ourselves or others — not for pleasure anyway! (Unless you’re a teacher, and that’s part of the reason teaching is such a good way of learning!)

So, this is one of the big issues in learning: how to get the repetition we need to fix something in our brain. Simple repetition — the sort of drill we deplore in pre-modern schools — is not a great answer. Not simply because it’s boring, but because boring tasks are not particularly effective means of getting the brain to do things. Our brains respond much better to the surprising, the novel, the emotional, the interesting.

Teachers today are of course aware of this, and do try (or I hope they do!) to provide as much variety, and interest, as they can. But there is another aspect to repetition that is less widely understood, and that is the spacing between repetitions. Now the basic principle has been known for some time: spaced repetition is better than massed practice. But research has been somewhat lacking as to what constitutes the optimal spacing for learning. Studies have tended to use quite short intervals. But now a new study has finally given us something to work with.

For a start, the study was much bigger than the usual such study — over 1350 people took part — increasing the faith we can have in the findings. And, crucially, the interval between the initial learning session and the second review session ranged from several minutes to 3.5 months (specifically, 3 minutes; one day; 2 days; 4 days; 7 days; 11 days; 14 days; 21 days; 35 days; 70 days; 105 days). The time until test also covered more ground — up to nearly a year (more specifically: 7 days; 35 days; 70 days; 350 days). The initial learning session involved the participants learning 32 obscure facts to a criterion level of one perfect recall for each fact. The review session involved the participants being tested twice on each fact. They were then shown the correct answer. Testing included both a recall test and a recognition (multi-choice) test. The participants, by the way, ranged in age from 18 to 72 years, with an average of 34 (the study was done using the internet; so nice to get away from the usual undergraduate fodder).

So there we are, a very systematic study, made possible by having such a large pool of participants (the benefits of the internet!). What was found? Well, first of all, the benefits of spacing review were quite significant, much larger than had been seen in earlier research when shorter intervals had been used. Given a fixed amount of study time, the optimal gap, compared to no gap (i.e. 3 minutes), improved recall by 64% and recognition by 26%.

Secondly, at any given test delay, longer intervals between initial study session and review session first improved test performance, then gradually reduced it. In other words, there was an optimal interval between study and review. This optimal gap increased as test delay increased — that is, the longer you want to remember the information, the more you should spread the gap between study and review (this simplifies the situation of course — if you’re serious about study, you’re going to review it more than once!). So, for those remembering for a week, the optimal gap was one day; for remembering for a month, it was 11 days; for 2 months (70 days) it was 3 weeks, and similarly for remembering for a year. Extrapolating, it seems likely that if you’re wanting to remember information for several years, you should review it over several months.

Note that the general rule is absolute rather than relative: when measured as a proportion of test delay, the optimal gap declined from about 20 to 40% of a 1-week test delay to about 5 to 10% of a 1-year test delay. In other words, although the optimal gap between study and review increases as the length of time you want to remember for increases, the ratio of gap to that length of time will decrease. Which seems very commonsensical.

As the researchers point out (and as has been said before), “the interaction of gap and test delay implies that many educational practices are highly inefficient”, concentrating topics tightly into short periods of time. This practice is likely to give misleadingly high levels of immediate mastery (as shown in tests given at the end of this time) — performance which is unlikely to be sustained over longer periods of time.

It’s also worth noting that the costs of using a gap that is longer than the optimal gap are decidedly less than the costs of using a shorter gap — in other words, better to space your learning longer than too short.

This article first appeared in the Memory Key Newsletter for December 2008

tags strategies: 

Flashcards

Flashcards are cards with a word (or phrase) on one side and its translation on the other. You can buy ready-made flashcards, and these can certainly be helpful, particularly if you're inexperienced at learning another language. However, it is more effective if you make them yourself. Not only will the cards be customized to your own use, but the activity of selecting words and writing them down help you learn them.

A standard way of using flashcards is simply to go through a set number each day, separating out those you have trouble with, so you can review them more often. Keep these ones handy so that you can go through them at odd moments during the day when you're waiting for something.

Use the flashcards as a handy way to group words in different ways. Deal out the cards and move them around, looking for connections.

If you have word-family flashcards (recommended) - e.g., cards with various related forms of a word - you can make different sentences with your cards. You could also play cards with them, if you have others to play with. You could play a version of rummy, for example, where the sets are infinitive, present tense, future tense, past perfect. Use your imagination!

A bingo game with flashcards is another fun way to practice. Construct bingo cards (large cards divided into a certain number of spaces the same size as your flashcards) with the native language words on it. While this is better played with others, you can at a pinch play with yourself, simply picking out a flashcard from the pile and seeing how quickly you can match it with its counterpart.

Learning words in isolation will not help you much in dealing with words in context. You do need to practice reading/writing/speaking/listening sentences. But flashcards are a useful means of memorizing vocabulary.

Flashcard software

VTrain (Vocabulary Trainer): is flashcard software apparently used in the language labs of 40 Universities and hundreds of high schools; it's free for educational establishments. It's shareware.

tags strategies: 

Spacing your learning

  • Spacing your learning / practice is more effective than doing it in long concentrated blocks
  • People commonly over-estimate how much they've learned, after a concentrated block
  • Memorization of items during a study session is most effectively done by recalling items at increasing intervals

Distributed practice more effective than massed practice

It has long been known that spacing practice (reviewing learning or practicing a skill at spaced intervals) is far more effective than massed practice (in one heavy session). An interesting example of this comes from a study that aimed to find the best way of teaching postmen to type (this was at the request of the British Post Office). The researchers put postmen on one of four schedules:

  • an intensive schedule of two two-hour daily sessions
  • one of two intermediate schedules involving two hours a day, either as one two-hour session, or two one-hour sessions
  • a more gradual schedule of one hour a day

The researchers found quite dramatic differences, with the one-hour-a-day group learning as much in 55 hours as the four-hour-a-day group in 80. Moreover, the gradual group showed greater retention of their skills when tested several months later.

Research has also demonstrated that people commonly over-estimate the value of massed practice, and tend not to give due recognition to the value of spacing practice. This particular study confirmed this, by finding that, notwithstanding their superior performance, the gradual group were the least happy with the program - for though they learned much more quickly in terms of hours, it took them many more days (80 hours at four hours a day is 20 days, but 55 hours at one hour a day is 55 days).

Micro-distribution practice

What about practice over much shorter intervals? Say you are learning vocabulary in a foreign language - is it better to repeat a word twice in rapid succession, or to space out the repetitions?

On the basis of the distribution principle, the answer is clear. Go through your list once, then repeat it. That way, every item will be maximally distant from its own repetition. But the distribution principle isn't the only memory principle at work here. The other principle is that of generation - that if you produce the word for yourself, this will strengthen the connection better than having the word given to you. And your likelihood of being able to successfully recall the word is greater if you test it earlier.

So you have two opposing principles at work here: one says maximise the time between repetitions, the other says minimise it. Which wins? Well, neither. They're both at work, so you need to take both into account, like this:

  • the first time, test a new word after only a brief interval (your own experience is best here, to tell you what length of interval is best for you)
  • on successive recalls, gradually increase the interval (your aim is to find the maximum interval at which you can reliably recall the word)
  • if you fail to recall the word, shorten the interval; if you succeed, lengthen it

Distributed practice in skill learning

The distribution principle also applies to skill learning, although people are probably even more reluctant to apply it. Practicing a skill in a concentrated block seems to give better performance, and indeed it does - at the time. The problem is, it doesn't lead to better long-term learning.

Part of the problem is that it makes you over-estimate how well you have learned the skill. But most of that learning will fade quickly. To learn the skill properly (i.e., for over the long term), you are best, not simply to distribute your practice, but also practice the skill in the context of a variety of different tasks. For example, if you were learning to type, you could hammer away at one combination of keys (say, asdf) thirty times, then you could move on to another sequence (jkl;) and repeat that thirty times, and so on. But it would be better if you mixed the sequences up.

It is thought that practicing in this way works better because it requires you to repeatedly retrieve the motor program corresponding to each task. It also requires you to differentiate the skills in terms of their similarities and differences, which may be assumed to result in a better mental conceptualization of those skills.

References: 

  1. Baddeley, Alan. Your memory: A user’s guide. (2nd ed.) London: Penguin Books, 1994.
  2. Simon, D.A. & Bjork, R.A. 2001. Metacognition in Motor Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 27 (4).

tags strategies: 

Learning a new skill

To master a skill:

  • Practice it until you reach the stage where actions follow automatically
  • Practice more efficiently, by:
    • varying your actions
    • providing immediate feedback
    • spacing out your practice

Remembering a skill is entirely different from remembering other kinds of knowledge. It’s the difference between knowing how and knowing that.

Practice, practice, practice

Practice is the key to mastering a skill. One of the critical aspects is assuredly the fact that, with practice, the demands on your attention get smaller and smaller. Interestingly (and probably against common sense), there appears to be no mental limit to the improvement you gain from practice. Your physical condition limits how much improvement you can make to a practical skill (although, in practice, few people probably ever approach these limits), but a cognitive skill will continue to improve as long as you keep practicing. One long-ago researcher had two people perform 10,000 mental addition problems, and they kept on increasing their speed to the end.

How to get the most out of your practice

While practice is the key, there are some actions we can take to ensure we get the most value out of our practice:

  • Learn from specific examples rather than abstract rules
  • Provide feedback while the action is active in memory (i.e., immediately). Try again while the feedback is active in memory.
  • Practice a skill with subtle variations (such as varying the force of your pitch, or the distance you are throwing) rather than trying to repeat your action exactly.
  • Space your practice (maths textbooks, for example, tend to put similar exercises together, but in fact they would be better spaced out).
  • Allow for interference with similar skills: if a new skill contains steps that are antagonistic to steps contained in an already mastered skill, that new skill will be much harder to learn (e.g., when I changed keyboards, the buttons for page up, page down, insert, etc, had been put in a different order — the conflict between the old habit and the new pattern made learning the new pattern harder than it would have been if I had never had a keyboard before). The existing skill may also be badly affected.
  • If a skill can be broken down into independent sub-skills, break it down into its components and learn them separately, but if components are dependent, learn the skill as a whole (e.g., computer programming can be broken into independent sub-skills, but learning to play the piano is best learned as a whole).

References: 

  1. Anderson, J.R., Fincham, J.M. & Douglass, S. 1997. The role of examples and rules in the acquisition of a cognitive skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 932-945.
  2. Chase, W.G. & Ericsson, K.A. 1981. Skilled memory. In J.R. Anderson (ed.) Cognitive skills and their acquisition. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  3. Wulf, G. & Schmidt, R.A. 1997. Variability of practice and implicit motor learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 987-1006.

tags strategies: 

tags memworks: 

Subscribe to practice