New research indicates that practicing the right way is crucial to learning new skills.
To investigate how learning can be optimized, Tom Stafford, Ph.D., of Sheffield University in England gathered figures from 854,064 players of an online game called Axon which tests rapid perception, decision-making, and response times.
In the game, players must guide a neuron from connection to connection by clicking on potential targets. This tests participants’ ability to perceive, make decisions, and move quickly. The researchers used a tracking code to record each player’s identity, and kept track of the score, date and time, each time the game was played.
Some players improved more than others, even with the same duration of practice. This appeared to be because they either spaced out their practice sessions, or had registered more variable early performances, suggesting they were exploring how the game works.
Findings are published in the journal Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The authors write, “Use of game data allowed us to connect, for the first time, rich details of training history with measures of performance from participants engaged for a sustained amount of time in effortful practice.
“We showed that relations exist between practice spacing and subsequent performance. Additionally, we showed that greater initial variation in performance is linked to higher subsequent performance.”
“The study suggests that learning can be improved,” said Stafford. “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.
“There is no reason to say that you can’t go on learning into later life. It isn’t clear that older people are any worse at learning than younger people. I would expect these results to apply equally to people of all ages.”
He also cautioned against being too perfectionist. “If you try too hard never to fail, you don’t explore the parameters of the activity. You have to do some exploration, and it is my theory that if you do this exploration, you will perform better in the long run.”
In terms of the ideal spacing between practice sessions, Stafford believes it depends on how long you want to remember the subject or skill. If you want to remember something for a year’s time, for example, he says you will need bigger spaces between practice sessions than if you want to remember something for just a week.
Stafford said that this study, with such a big sample of online game players, provides a useful template for looking at other types of learning. “This kind of data affords us to look in an unprecedented way at the shape of the learning curve,” he said.
He added that using data collected from people playing games has strong advantages over studying learning in a lab. He plans to work with game designers on further studies into optimal learning.
A further study that shows spaces between training sessions improves performance was carried out in April 2014 by researchers at Beijing Normal University, China. As Renlai Zhou, Ph.D., and colleagues pointed out, “Cognitive training studies yield wildly inconsistent results.”
But such studies vary enormously in the scheduling of training sessions, so the team addressed the issue by randomly assigning 115 fifth-grade children to four training groups. Each had 20 sessions training that used their working memory, spread across two, five, ten, or 20 days. Working memory is what we use when we hold several pieces of information in our mind, to use immediately.
All groups improved significantly on the training task, but the group with the greatest amount of spacing (20 days) had the best results on a separate test of fluid intelligence. This is our ability to think logically and solve new problems, regardless of “background” intelligence.
The experts add that boosting our working memory via training “is beneficial to various subject populations, varying from young children to old adults, including healthy subjects as well as those with special needs.”
In tests, it had aided the recovery of cognitive function after a stroke, improved memory among adults over 80 years old, and improved fluid intelligence in college students and younger pupils.
They summarize that the spacing effect seen here in memory may shed light on similar effects in other areas of brain training.
Stafford, T. and Dewar, M. Tracing the Trajectory of Skill Learning With a Very Large Sample of Online Game Players. Psychological Science, 30 December 2013, doi: 10.1177/0956797613511466 Axon
Wang, Z. et al. Spaced cognitive training promotes training transfer. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10 April 2014, doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00217
Abstract of brain photo by shutterstock.