Personal Growth

Scientists Found a Technique That Can Help You Learn Skills Twice as Fast

You can't learn a new skill without a bit of practice, right? But even if you practice every day, you may not be getting the most out of your practicing. Repeating the thing over and over again is one way to do it. Or you can try another method that scientists found can help you learn the thing twice as fast. Your choice.

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Practice Makes Perfect, Eventually

Let's say you're a novice trumpet player. You know how to make some noise, you can read music, and you know which valves to push to get a few notes out. Now to learn your scales. Your method would probably be to practice a scale over and over again until you can play it correctly every time, right? That may not be the best technique, says a 2016 study published in the journal Current Biology. According to researchers from Johns Hopkins University, here's the secret: Practice different versions of the motor skill you're trying to master instead of doing the same exact thing over and over again.

In the study, 86 volunteers were tasked with learning a new motor skill: moving a cursor toward targets on a screen by squeezing a little device. Six hours after learning the skill in an initial training session, they were separated into three groups: one group practiced the same skill again, another group practiced a modified version of the skill, and the control group didn't do anything beyond the first training session. At the end of the training, the group that practiced a modified version did twice as well with the squeezing task as the group that only practiced that specific move.

"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," lead researcher Pablo Celnik said in a press release.

Flip It 'N Reverse It

The researchers believe this method works due to something called reconsolidation. Garden-variety consolidation is a sort of enhancement that happens after your brain has encoded a memory or skill, but before that memory is recalled — you see its effects in the way you can remember test material better after a good night of sleep, for example. Reconsolidation happens when the consolidated memory is retrieved and goes through the same steps again, this time being modified with new information. Researchers have hypothesized that this process plays a role in strengthening motor skills.

That explains the six-hour time gap between training sessions — research has shown that six hours is how long it takes for our memories to reconsolidate. But this little tidbit comes in handy for more than just grade schoolers learning to play the trumpet. Hacking reconsolidation could help stroke patients or people with other neurological conditions regain motor function.

The key to making this tactic work for you is to make small tweaks, not huge changes in what you're practicing. "If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidation," said Celnik. "The modification between sessions needs to be subtle." To return to the trumpet example, this means practicing the scale with different rhythms or from different starting notes. It works for sports, too: It's why swimmers will practice just stroking with their arms or just kicking their legs, and why basketball and football players perform drills that don't resemble a real game. Got a motor skill you're trying to master? Think of all the ways you can tweak it to add just the right amount of challenge — then tweak it again tomorrow. Practice makes perfect, after all.

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Ready to put this to the test? Check out Ulrich Boser's "Learn Better: Mastering the Skills for Success in Life, Business, and School, or, How to Become an Expert in Just About Anything" to get started. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto April 24, 2018

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