Practice – mostly forgotten yet where most learning takes place…
Author: Donald Clark
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This is Mathew Syed, Britain’s No. 1 table-tennis player for ten years. Not only that, the next five best players all lived within a few streets of him. How come? Well, they had a great coach, a club that was open 24 hours a day (they all had the keys) and a group who practised, deliberately and mercilessly to get to the top. It was nothing to do with natural ‘talent’ and everything to do with effort and practice. It is all in his excellent book ‘Bounce’ (Syed 2011) where he explains not only his sporting journey but the psychology behind that journey, in particular his discovery of deliberate ‘practice’.
In learning, learning ‘practice’ experiences (LPXs) are likely to be far more important than the original learning experience. They will play a much more powerful role in refining, reinforcing, recalling and ultimately in acquiring knowledge and skills. One simple finding that often surprises teachers is that the simple act of recall by a learner may be a stronger reinforcement event that the original teaching experiences. Practice is therefore the learning that takes place after the initial teaching has been delivered.
When I spoke to Tim O’Reilly, a name everyone who has done any coding will know, as he’s published a zillion text books in the subject. He explained how textbooks (online or offline) are only the start of a learning journey and how coders need both structured, learning experiences at the start, as well as opportunities to learn by exploring and doing. Most will use a tool such as ‘Jupyter’ a structured environment where one can practice how to code for real. It is rare for these environments to exist in other knowledge and skills domains and we have much to learn from technical training on that front.
Of course, practice environments, as simulations, have been around for decades. Pilots use them because they need to practice skills and situations that are rare in the real world. In the Mayo Clinic last year, I got a tour of their simulation facilities. It was huge and full of practice opportunities that could be supervised, without the need for endangering actual patients. Learning practice experiences matter, as it may be too expensive or dangerous to have such experiences in the real world. VR offers an expansion of such opportunities.
Beyond these formal practice environments, in most cases what is learned is reinforced and turned into an automatic skill by actual application in the real world. This takes time but has the advantage of using learning experiences within real contexts, real experiences. Few learning experiences beat real experiences for actual skills acquisition. Most of us learn this way. We may learn how to type, use PowerPoint and many other skills by doing it and, over time, getting better at it. Apprenticeships allow for practice under supervised conditions, work shadowing, internships and other placement techniques can also be useful. Even these may not be enough, so more formal programmes of on-going coaching in sport or formal practice techniques may also be necessary. In sport, you may spend far more time training than applying your skill. Whatever the methods of formal or informal practice is adopted. Practice makes perfect or at least moves you steadily in that direction.
Of course, practice may eventually make perfect but that is not the whole story as practice is a multi-faceted and complex process. One area of practice that has over 130 years of research behind it and uncovers much of this complexity, is spaced-practice.
Formal spaced-practice, at its simplest it is the spacing of practice eexperiences over time into the future to embed learning. It uses recall, rehearsal, revision, application or deliberate practice and recall of knowledge or skills spaced over time to reinforce and consolidate them in long-term memory.
Experienced learners know that spaced practice; repeated practice, really does matter. Good learners do their homework, develop revision techniques, repeat and rehearse in their heads, take notes and so on. This is often without any real guidance from the educational system, but they eventually realise that it is what leads to success. Similarly with practical skills, where the complexity of the real world provides additional learning experoinces tha move learners from being novices to experts.
So, given that millions of teachers, lecturers, trainers, coaches and instructors are employed in the learning game, it is perhaps surprising that little or no attention is paid to the idea of spaced-practice, in the actual application and professional practice of teaching and learning. One could argue that without knowledge of this principle and its causes, those who teach are missing a key set of learning experiences in the process of learning. This a little unfair, since most traditional learning has been in fixed courses in training rooms, classrooms or lecture halls and once the student has walked out the door, they have gone. All attempts at practice, revision and application is down to the learner.
But one thing has happened that changes everything – technology. We now have the ability to design, develop and deliver spaced-practice online, to our smartphones directly to the learner.
Ebbinghaus, in 1885, published Uber Das Gedachtis (On memory), published in English in 1913 (Ebbinghaus 1913), a groundbreaking work, which laid the foundations for the practical science of memory. Not only did he give us the application of the scientific method to the measurement of memory, this also resulted in some startling findings. First, the famous forgetting curve, that even now, has the ability to startle those who first encounter the precipitous nature of forgetting. He also explored chunking, an essential principle in memory and learning theory, a practical response to the severe limitations of working memory. Then there are his findings on primacy and recency, showing that we have a tendency to remember the first and last things in a learning experience.
Let’s focus on the forgetting curve. This applied to the recall of short strings of letters, and not all of the evidence for forgetting is as pronounced as this. Nevertheless, it is certain that most learning experiences lead to some, and usually substantial, forgetting. Although decay rates are variable this should not detract us from the task at hand, which is to increase the productivity of learning through increased retention and recall from long-term memory.
Although students often perform better immediately after ‘massed practice’ (single bout of practice), they forget quicker and perform poorly in later tests than ‘spaced-practice’ students (Keppel 1964). This is why much end-point assessment is short-term and short-sighted.
Forgetting is initially steep and show that memories are lost very quickly then more slowly, so forgetting is not simply proportional to the passing of time (Wickelgren 1976). One solution to this predictable process of forgetting is spaced-practice which works, as Ebbinghaus discovered, through the spacing effect, the separation of learning events over time (Dempster 1988). As forgetting is a curved descent, so methods that combat forgetting (remembering) need to be spaced across a curved ascent.
A solution to the problem of the failure to elaborate and shunt learnt knowledge and skills from working memory to long-term memory is to repeat, retrieve, review, revise, rehearse, recall and practice at spaced intervals in the future. Evidence suggests that the periodicity of these intervals matters but it is also important that it involves active recall and not just the recognition of answers. Whatever profile the forgetting curve has, and almost all learning results in a quantifiable fall, the cure is clearly to do more to consolidate the cognitive gain beyond that initial experience. If most of what we learn is forgotten it should be an imperative to slow the forgetting curve. The science suggests that this one technique has the greatest chance of substantially increasing productivity and performance in learning.
Memory theory is one of the most developed areas of experimental psychology and learning theory, yet the learning industry, schools, further education, higher education, corporate and adult learning have taken little practical advantage from these theoretical advances. So what does the science tell us?
All ‘learning’ comes down to encoding into memory with performance being the retrieval of that stored knowledge and skills (Anderson 1994). Yet, much learning has been shown to play to short-term memory with rapid and on-going decay. This cramming or sheep-dip learning plays to short-term memory and recall, and does not have high retention value (Dempster 1988).
Encoding matters, so chunking of the original material to prevent cognitive overload, along with techniques to grab and sustain attention really do matter. But to consolidate memories, repeated active practice pushes knowledge and skills from working to long-term memory then consolidates these memories to make them more permanent. Spaced events, combined with repeated retrieval, consolidate memories and improve accurate recall. In practice, the repeated spaced-practice intervals get longer over time.
We have known for over a century that memories decay over time. We also know that memory is better encoded the more times it is actively learnt and that the same amount of active learning is better if distributed over time. This is important as spaced-practice gives you better performance with optimal effort. Additionally, memory is a process of reconstruction and the more we recall a learnt item, the more recallable it becomes in the future (Bjork 1988).
Memories are encoded (Anderson 1994) into long-term memory and can be consolidated (made stronger) by repeated, active spaced-practice. Spaced-practice also increases the probability, speed and performance. The promise is that the learner will be more likely to recall something quicker and better. This is why the retrieval through spaced-practice is so important. It prevents memory loss (Bjork 1975). The more we recall, the more recallable memories become.
But the efficiency of recall can be made all the stronger by the use of ‘cues’, namely stimuli that help you recall knowledge and skills. Cues are important, as it is cues that activate the memories for recall. They’re like the handles on suitcases, which you can use to haul out stored memories. Cues can be mnemonics, contextual and there is evidence Kuiper & Kirker (1977) to suppose that they are strong when self-referenced i.e. the learner creates their own cues when encoding things to be remembered.
Memory systems used by high performing memory champions use ‘memory palace’ techniques that are remarkably efficient in aiding cued recall. Typically you would place the items to be remembered along a well-known street you know or in the rooms of your own house, then use that known place as a cue-rich environment you are already familiar with, to recall new knowledge.
If courses are chunked, and cues deliberately provided, so that each chunk has cues or encourages the learner to create their own cues, this is useful in the construction of spaced-practice, as it is the cues and not just bits of content that can be spaced and used for recall. Later practice events can be contextual cues,, where a contextualised scenario is presented.
Rather than simple repetition; reading, watching or listening in spaced-practice, active recall, pulling something out of memory, not just recognising something from a list or multiple choice question, improves future performance. This is something we have known for a century (Gates 1917). The act of active recall develops and strengthens memory. It also improves the process of recall in ways that passive recall – reading, listening and watching do not. In practice, it is active recall that really matters in knowledge and skills, not recognition. An additional advantage is that if we learn in a way that mimics the conditions of future recall (rarely just recognition), recall is all the more certain (Morris et al 1977).
Let’s get more precise on active recall. Professor Roediger at Washington University in St. Louis has researched this in detail. In this study students had to memorise pictures. Group 1 were simply asked to remember as many as they could, Group 2 were given a booster quiz where they were asked to actively recall as many pictures as they could, Group 3 were given spaced-practice recall exercises. No extra study was provided in any of these exercises. In a test a week later there were clear differences in performance.
A weakness of this experiment is the charge that there was still more ‘learning time’ through the recall tests, so Roediger split students into two groups. Group 1 read a science essay and were allowed to reread that essay. Group 2 did the same but rather than re-read they were asked booster recall questions. A recall test 2 days later showed a clear difference and that difference was even more marked after 1 week,
We can take advantage in a formal, pushed system to push out cues and active recall, on knowledge that users have shown they don’t know, don’t know well or don’t feel confident about.
Active recall and/or practice generally produces much greater performance benefits, especially repeated and spaced testing. These have been shown in many trials to be superior to the re-presentation of content. Allen, Mahler, & Estes (1969), Hogan & Kintsch (1971) Nungester & Duchastel (1982) Cuddy & Jacoby (1982) Kuo & Hirshman Izawa (1992). When this active practice is accompanied by feedback, it has even greater benefits.
But it is the combination of spaced-practice with active recall experiences (Landauer and Bjork (1978), with repeated sessions, as well as greater gaps, that leads to optimal retention and recall. The timing of this practice is important. We know that there is a point, soon after the learning experience, where it is essential to practice but as decay slows over time, the practice sessions can be increasingly spaced out over time. This typically follows a minutes, hours, days, weeks, months pattern.
All of the above encourage student agency, where the learner plays a role in determining what they need to practice more. Agency, as a feature of memory, is important in terms of improving performance. This self-awareness of one’s own learning and processes, such as memory, is called ‘metacognition’. This metacognition (Tulving & Madigan 1970) can be used to control and improve learning (Nelson & Narens 1990). We also know that, if learners’ metacognition skills are low, they often fail to plan their study so that optimal learning and retention takes place (Nelson & Leonesio 1988). This can work to the student’s disadvantage. Zechmeister and Shaughnessy (1980) showed that metacognition of massed repetitions give learners a false view of their ability to recall knowledge.
An additional feature of spaced-practice is the self-awareness of the learner in relation to their confidence that they know something. However, simplistic metacognition, the students’ knowledge of their own learning is a double-edged sword. Self-perception of ability can both help and hinder learning. The bottom line is that one can study too little or too much (Nelson and Leonesio 1988). This has led to spaced-practice systems that allow the learner to express a rating on their feeling of confidence about their ability.
Spaced-practice can therefore be selective in that items that are clearly known can have less weight than items which the user is not confident about, had difficulty in learning or clearly doesn’t know. Here spaced-practice can involve algorithmic inferences that use performance data about each individual learner, then route that learner through a series of items, or network of knowledge, based on optimising their learning and spaced-practice.
It should also be noted that the use of spaced-practice methods improves a learners metacognitive skills and makes them better learners. Applying a formal method can lead to more informal methods and habits being adopted.
To give spaced-practice a real, practical, performance context, let us consider its place in blended learning. Blended learning has become an acceptable shorthand for learning experiences that are sophisticated in that they are designed around the real needs of the learners, types of learning and resources you have at your disposal, along with costs. Note that blended learning is not blended teaching, where you simply slam together a bit of offline and online (sometimes known as Velcro learning). It is about optimizing the learning experience for the learner. Every blended learning experience should at least consider spaced-practice as a way of maximising learning outcomes and there are many ways to introduce spaced-practice into a blended experience.
Blended components can include a wide range of spaced-practice opportunities; simple repetitions, repetitions with concise cued phrases, stories, graphics, examples, analogies, metaphors. More active retrieval components include; tests, practice, exercises, simulations, case studies and role plays. Deeper retention may also involve; discussion, debate, dialogue and collaboration.
Spaced-practice needs to be habitual. These habits are common in experienced and successful learners but take time to learn and in themselves require repeated practice to become habitual. John Locke and William James both emphasised the key role that ‘habit’ plays in learning, lessons we have largely ignored. Good learners develop good learning habits. They always have something to read in their pocket or bag. They tend to be obsessive note takers, often with a long series of filled notebooks. They habitually elaborate what they hear and actively try to remember. They replay and recall in their own minds, through dialogue and re-reading their notes. They also tend to kick-start new learning habits using technology, such as bookmarking and blogging.
We also have to be conscious of context and the affective, emotional and motivational side of learning. It is also about habits – sleep, time, place, having a notebook, note taking, email, social media, blogging, mobiles, wearables and so on. Practice is on the agenda not only because it works but because we now have the tools and technology to make it work. To limit the concept of spaced practice to repetition is to limit the principle and limit our imagination when it comes to solutions. As we will see, with technology we have a chance to create learning habits in ways that were never possible even a few years ago.
Top and tail
One of the simplest techniques is to top and tail identified course chunks. This could be lectures, classes, periods, breaks or modules. Take lectures, before you start, summarise succinctly what was taught in the last lecture, then summarise what you have just taught at the end of the lecture. This inserts a small dose of spaced-practice, preferably and active learning experience, to the learner, with practice being presented, three times – once during the lecture, once at the end and once again at the start of the next. There is a double dividend here, as this also plays to the known principle of primacy and recency (we remember the first and last things more than the things in between), taking advantage of a cognitive bias to consolidate learning. The same can be applied to classroom training, with summaries before and after coffee breaks. Similar techniques can be used in online learning, where modules are topped and tailed. In other words, take advantage of every break, section, module to include a summary which repeats or gives an opportunity for learners to recall, what was learnt. Across a term you can use regular quizzes, where 50% is new and 50% is old material. These overlapping tests are, in practice, spaced-practice.
As a learner, get into the habit, not only of taking notes, but rereading and rewriting those notes. When reading books, underline key points. At the end of each chapter, write a small summary. Even better write a review of the book. Marx used to write a summary of every book he read. Studies on note taking (with control groups and reversal of note takers and non-note takers to eliminate differences) show overwhelmingly that note taking increases memory/retention. Many aspects of increased memory have been studied including; increased attention, immediate recall, delayed tests, free recall, MCQs, remembering important v less important knowledge, correlations with quality of notes and deeper learning. Bligh (2000) has detailed dozens of studies in this area. Wittrick and Alesandrini (1990) found that written notes increased learning by 30% through summaries and 22% using written analogies, compared to the control group. Why does note taking increase retention? First, increased focus, attention and concentration, the necessary conditions for learning. Second, increased attention to meaning and therefore better encoding. Thirdly, rehearsal and repetition, which processes it into long term memory. All three matter.
Practice is arguably the most powerful, yet most overlooked benefit in learning and true performance. Implemented properly and it is possible to have huge gains in productivity, namely the retention, recall and application of whatever has been learnt. One could go further and say that without a practice strategy, there is no learning strategy.
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