Practice doesn’t make perfect, say psychologists

• Learning can be optimised if you practice in the right way
• The way you practice is more important than the frequency
• Study analysed data from more than 850,000 people

The saying ‘practice makes perfect’ may not be so true after all, according to new research by scientists at the University of Sheffield.

In fact when it comes to learning quickly it’s the way you practice not how often you practice, the study by Dr Tom Stafford, from the University’s Psychology Department suggests.

PracticeDr Stafford and Dr Michael Dewar from The New York Times Research and Development Lab analysed data from 854,064 players on an online game looking at how practice affected subsequent performances. The game tested rapid perception, decision making and motor responding.

Some players registered higher scores than others despite practicing for the same amount of time. The study suggests those who did display an ability to learn more quickly had either spaced out their practice or had registered more variable early performances – suggesting they were exploring how the game works – before going on to perform better.

Dr Stafford said: “The study suggests that learning can be improved. 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.”

Using data collected from people playing games is an example of a new technique to study learning and has strong advantages over studying learning in a lab – the data collected can be easily recorded and records every action of people in the course of their learning.

Dr Stafford is keen to work with game designers to develop studies into optimal learning.

Additional information

The game used for the study is called Axon and can be played Researchers inserted a tracking code that recorded machine identity each time the game was loaded and kept track of the score and the date and time of play.

The University of Sheffield
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