Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Everything Bad is Good For You

That's the title of an intriguing book by Steven Johnson and appears to be the theme of the science of learning form the authors of Make it Stick.  In my first summay, I described the testing effect and how it is superior to rereading.

The next section of their book describes the antitode to massed practice or blocked practice, the idea of practicing one skill until it is burned into memory - think math homework over the past 50 years.  It turns out that this type of focused and repetitive practice is not as beneficial as we would believe.

The antitode to massed practice  is spaced, interleaved, and varied practice.  It turns out that the goal is to make the practice a little harder to encourage retrieval in a manner that leads to improved descrimination skills.

Spaced Practice - Leaving a little time (at least a day) between practice sessions allows the learner to forget just enough so that it requires effort to retrieve the content.  It is this act of retrieval after a little forgetting that actually impedes the forgetting process.  Daniel Willingham summarizes the studies about massed practice and shares suggested implications here.

Interleaved Practice -  Learning several new and related concepts at the same time is actually slower and feels less productive. Intuitively we all want to practice one thing at a time until it is mastered.  It turns out that for long term benefit, even though we feels like we are not, we are actually benefitting from a less uniform approach to learning new concent.  Instead of learning the formula for area of one shape at a time, it will be better for long term memory to learn the area formula of several different shapes interleaving them together thus solidifying our ability to choose the  right formula when needed.

Varied Pracitce - The authors cited another study that showed two groups who were practicing tossing a beanbag.  One group practiced consistently at three feet. The other group practiced at two and four feet.  They were both tested on a three foot toss and the group that had NEVER practiced on three feet performed better than the group that ONLY practiced on three feet.

My biggest takeaway is that we need to develop practice routines that allow the learner to rehearse the decision making that they will face in an authentic setting.   In closing, the authors spoke about the need to add reflection to all learning expereinces. Asking questions such as What happened?, What did I do?, How did it work out? are invaluable tools to cement learning in every experience.  Finally, we should ask, What should I do next time?

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