Maximize Your Learning with Practice

15.08.2017 |

Episode #9 of the course Learning how to learn by Ace Eddleman


Let’s talk about how to practice, which is often neglected when people want to learn new skills.

Anyone who’s ever tried to learn a new skill is aware of the need to practice that skill. But how to practice is generally left undefined. Even worse, people fall into the trap of believing that any kind of practice is beneficial (thanks for that, Malcolm Gladwell!).

The reality is that when it comes to practice, how you practice is more important than how much you practice. There is a baseline of time that needs to be put into developing your skills, but ineffective practice techniques will hinder your progress.

Learning how to practice correctly for the specific skill you want to learn therefore becomes an important skill in itself. It starts by examining what type of skill you want to learn (we covered skill types in the last lesson).

Let’s use the basketball example from the last lesson. The simplest way to think about how to practice is this: Learning how to shoot a free-throw requires a different type of practice than learning how to play the actual game of basketball.

If you’re trying to become a better basketball player, it doesn’t make sense to spend all your time on repetitive movements without any kind of variation (this is often referred to as blocked practice). It makes much more sense for you to expose yourself to as many realistic on-court situations as possible.

Mix it up by engaging in random practice. Do drills that aren’t entirely predictable more than drills that are. Play in scrimmages regularly. Do whatever it takes to build up your ability to adapt to the constantly changing environment you’re going to find in a game.

But if you’re trying to become a better weight lifter, you need your practice regimen to reflect the closed nature of that skill. It’s likely going to be a matter of repeating the same motions over and over again, because variation in form isn’t a feature of lifting weights.

In skills like basketball, it’s a good idea to use both methods: random practice for overall skill improvement and blocked practice for specific skill (free throws, jump shots, etc.) improvement.

Here are a couple rules of thumb you can use when you’re trying to learn either type of skill (or a hybrid of the two):

1. Open skills demand variation, so make sure your practice involves lots of randomization. Don’t just drill movements; make sure you’re practicing situations where you need to react to your environment and put your learning to the test.

2. Closed skills should be practiced exactly like they would be executed “live.” Performance is going to be measured based on proficiency in specific movements, so make those as crisp as you can. Variation isn’t nearly as important here.

If you don’t respect the reality of skill types, you’re going to not only get frustrated but also likely beaten in whatever it is you want to get better at.

Those who understand this dynamic will have skills that reflect real-world expertise and they will consistently beat those who don’t.

An interesting wrinkle in all of this is that blocked practice for open skills can often feel more effective, and studies have shown that short-term performance is actually improved with blocked practice. But here’s the crucial detail: Random practice creates superior retention.

This is an important distinction because learning is measured not by what you can do right after repeating it a bunch of times but by whether you can perform those same actions correctly later on. Blocked practice is popular specifically because so many people don’t understand the importance of retention.

That’s all for today. In tomorrow’s lesson, we’ll explore how to avoid the dreaded plateaus you’ll inevitably hit while learning a new skill. See you then!


Recommended book

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson


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