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The Right Way to Practice = Faster Learning

The old adage notwithstanding, practice doesn’t make perfect unless you do it the correct way — especially when it comes to learning quickly. That’s the finding of research done at the University of Sheffield in the UK and The New York Times Research and Development Lab. The study was published in the journal Psychological Science.  

A release from the publisher quotes lead researcher Tom Stafford as saying, "As we live longer, and as more of our lives become based around acquiring complex skills, optimal learning becomes increasingly relevant to everyone."

Stafford at the university and Michael Dewar at the lab analyzed data from 854,064 people playing an online game called Axon. Players are tasked with guiding a neuron from connection to connection by clicking on potential targets, testing participants' ability to perceive, make decisions, and move quickly. Stafford and Dewar were interested in learning how practice affected players' subsequent performance in the game.

Some Axon players achieved higher scores than others despite practicing for the same amount of time. Game play data revealed that those players who seemed to learn more quickly had either spaced out their practice or had more variable early performance — suggesting they were exploring how the game works — before going on to perform better.

A release from the publisher quotes Stafford as saying, "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 as more of our lives become based around acquiring complex skills, optimal learning becomes increasingly relevant to everyone."

Using data collected from people playing games offers a new way for researchers to study learning, and has strong advantages compared to research on learning that is based in the lab. Game data provide insight into a real skill that people presumably enjoy practicing, and detailed data regarding all actions that players take as they learn to play are easily recorded.

"This kind of data affords us to look in an unprecedented way at the shape of the learning curve, allowing us to explore how the way we practice helps or hinders learning," Stafford said.

Stafford hopes to collaborate with game designers to further investigate the factors that shape optimal learning.

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