Practice doesn't make perfect, say psychologists


The saying ‘practice makes perfect’ may not be so true after all, according to new research by scientists at the University of Sheffield.

In fact when it comes to learning quickly it’s the way you practice not how often you practice, the study by Dr Tom Stafford, from the University’s Psychology Department suggests.

Dr Stafford and Dr Michael Dewar from The New York Times Research and Development Lab analysed data from 854,064 players on an online game looking at how practice affected subsequent performances. The game tested rapid perception, decision making and motor responding.

Some players registered higher scores than others despite practicing for the same amount of time. The study suggests those who did display an ability to learn more quickly had either spaced out their practice or had registered more variable early performances – suggesting they were exploring how the game works – before going on to perform better.

Leaving a day between sessions did not weaken performance, but strengthened it, said Prof Stafford. This is because it makes better use of how the brain stores information. Cramming for long intense stretches ahead of a test might feel like more is being learned, but this is illusory.

Dr Stafford said: “The study suggests that learning can be improved. You can learn more efficiently or use the same practice time to learn to a higher level. As we live longer, and more of our lives become based around acquiring complex skills optimal learning becomes increasingly relevant to everyone.”

A better way of revising or learning is to plan over a much longer period, with substantial breaks between study sessions. For instance, practising a skill for two hours and then taking a day-long break before practising for another two hours was more effective than practising continuously for four hours.

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