Are you currently trying to learn the guitar or some other motor skill-based activity? New research tells us how to make the most of a practice session – by including slight changes to your task each time.
Practice session for motor skills
Often when learning a new skill for the first time, we tend to find an “exercise” to repeat each time we practice, like a couple of chords on the guitar in a recognizable pattern. Each time it gets slightly easier to do the task, and this must mean we are improving… right? It turns out that there is a better way to practice that leads to improvement much faster. Each time you exercise a skill, introduce subtle changes in the task you’re doing.
A new study from Johns Hopkins has evaluated the effect of introducing slight modifications to practice sessions. The results support an idea that reconsolidation, where existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge, can play a key role in strengthening motor skills.
Research on practicing
The researchers looked at three groups of volunteers, a total of 86 individuals, and had them practice and perform a task. The task involved squeezing a device that would move a computer cursor across a monitor, and participants were asked to move the cursor across various windows on the screen in a set pattern as quickly and accurately as possible. They participated in 45 minute practice sessions. For the control group, they practiced the task once a day. For the second group, they repeated their practice session six hours after the first in the same day, performing the same exact task. For the third group, they repeated their practice session six hours after the first also, but subtle changes were made to the program so that the force they applied had to be slightly changed for each trial. The participants were not aware and did not notice the changes, however.
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The results? The test subjects who practiced with subtle modifications improved at a rate of about twice as fast as those with the same practice session each time. Of note, the group that at least practiced twice in the same day still saw improvements over those who did not repeat their session – so practice in general makes a difference.
The science of practice and learning
The researchers recognize the usefulness of this information in leisure skills like learning an instrument, but it could also be beneficial to patients undergoing physical therapy to improve motor skills after a stroke or other neurological condition.
In terms of the changes that should be introduced, they should be subtle, like the size or weight of the ball in a sport. Playing a different sport altogether does not seem to provide any benefits. For learning the guitar, perhaps it would be best to practice those same chords but in a different melody, or with a different rhythm.