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Practice makes perfect: how to master new skills twice as fast

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Most of us have a skill that, in our fantasy lives, we’d really like to possess. Maybe you’ve always liked the idea of being able to sit down at a piano and bash out a note-perfect rendition of Someone Like You. Or perhaps you’d love to be able to sew your own clothes, or speak Spanish fluently, or be really good at tennis.

None of these talents are superpowers; we could, in theory, master them all. But what often gets in our way is the thorny issue of practice. Yes, it would be great to just have these skills preloaded in our brains like the iBooks app on an iPhone – but if it’s going to take us weeks, months, or even years of practice to get to a reasonable ability level, many of us decide that we can’t really be bothered.

It makes sense, then, that scientists have been trying to pinpoint the most effective method of practice. And research suggests that mixing things up is the most important thing.

In a study from John Hopkins University School of Medicine in the US, 86 volunteers tried to to learn a new motor skill that involved moving a computer cursor by squeezing a device. Researchers divided the participants into three groups: the first was given one practice routine, which everyone repeated three times over two days, while the second used two slightly different practice exercises. The third, the control group, were given only one chance to practice their skills. 
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No one becomes great at a sport without practice.

They found that the best way of honing a new skill was doing a variety of practice exercises, rather than simply repeating one exercise over and over again. And switching things up makes a serious difference: by varying your practice routine, you can nearly double the speed at which you learn.

“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 the study’s lead author, Pablo Celnik.  

However, Celnik adds that it’s important not to switch up your routine too much. “If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidating,” he says. “The modification between sessions needs to be subtle.”

The findings echo previous research which suggests that variety in practice can help us master all kinds of skills – not just motor skills, which involve using our muscles. In one study, maths students were asked to try “interleaving” (a method of practice that entails working on related skills, as well as the central skill you’re trying to master). After a day, the students who’d practiced interleaving did 25% better on a test; a month later, they did 75% better.

So there you have it: a very particular kind of practice makes perfect. 

Images: iStock

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