The key to learning a new skill (like playing the guitar or shooting those hoops for example) isn’t only in the hours you put into practice, but also how those hours are spent. Scientists have found that by adding slight variations in the practice routine, you can keep your brain more active and facilitate the learning process.

Learning to play the piano could go much faster if you slightly change practice sessions. (Pixabay)

John Hopkins researchers conducted a study on 86 healthy volunteers, asking them to learn to learn a computer-based motor skill. They found that those who quickly adjusted to a modified practice session the second time performed better than those who did the same practice session twice.

Pablo Celnik.

“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 Celnik.

The findings seem to support a theory called reconsolidation. Reconsolidation is the process of previously consolidated memories being recalled and actively consolidated. Basically, even something that is consolidated in the long-term memory can be difficult to access at times. If you do something similar but slightly different, it can be better embedded in your memory.

This could not only be useful for people trying to learn a new skill, but also for helping patients with strokes or some other condition that leaves them struggling with their motor skills.

“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 because of reconsolidation,” says Celnik. “The goal is to develop novel behavioral interventions and training schedules that give people more improvement for the same amount of practice time.”

The volunteers were split into three groups: the first group conducted a learning session, then an identical one after six hours (considered the period needed to consolidate memories from the first session) and another one the next day. The second group conducted an identical session the first time, but the second and third one were tweaked slightly; similar tasks, but with minor differences. The third group was the control group, and only conducted the first session without repeating it.

The second group was more accurate and almost twice as fast as the first group, Celnik says. Participants in the third group performed on average 25% worse than the ones in the first group.

It’s key that the adjustments are small, like for example using  a basketball that’s a bit heavier or adjusting the size of the tennis ball between sessions.

“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.”

Other not-yet-published studies from Celnik and his team indicate that changing a practice session too much brings no advantage.

Study co-authors were Nicholas F. Wymbs and Amy J. Bastian, Ph.D., P.T.

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