The “Right” Kind of Practice

Is practicing the same thing over and over really the best way to learn a new skill? The American public education system sure seems to think so, with its heavy emphasis on rote learning. Research has shown that not only does hammering facts, figures and skills home result in students who are less creative and less engaged, these effects can carry through into adulthood and affect students in college and on the job.

Time magazine recently published an interesting article suggesting that while practice can make perfect, not all practice is created equal. The interesting science behind learning an instrument suggests that practicing a song over and over won’t make you better at it. Practicing a song, noticing your errors and working on those areas where you make the most mistakes, does, however, result in a dramatic improvement in skill.

And this makes sense. Gifted education advocates have long pointed to “perfectionism” as a hallmark of intellectual youngsters – rather than being a sign of neuroses, they say, it’s the reason why many brilliant people are so successful. Yes, focusing on your errors excessively can damage self-esteem. Yes, a fear of failure can be crippling and prevent someone from trying to improve at all. But noting mistakes and repeating problem areas until you get them right can only help you improve. In fact, according to Time,  it’s the only way to improve.

It’s not just learning an instrument where this is the case. These findings about learning can be applied to any subject. A student who doesn’t make an effort to find and correct errors in their own writing will never become a good writer. If a teacher doesn’t help them with strategies to find and correct those errors prior to turning an essay in, it seems there’s no point to assigning it to begin with.

The problem is that schools often don’t teach children to spot and correct their own errors. Instead, teachers will assign the same types of questions over and over, hoping that students will eventually absorb enough of it to pass standardized tests. Do children actually remember that information once they’ve regurgitated it on a test? Or do they just forget it and move on to the next unit?

The other problem with rote learning is that it kills natural curiosity – without it, students aren’t going to be motivated to improve. Why bother trying to correct errors they know are there, when they’re going to be doing the same thing in class the next day no matter how well they do?

I don’t know the answer to this problem, but I do know that the science of learning is increasingly bearing out what seem to be intuitive strategies for education. Keep students engaged – make learning interesting and fun. Give students reasons to be motivated in class beyond a grade on an assignment. Use children’s natural curiosity to instill a love of learning. Help children understand the satisfaction of learning to do something well, instead of just doing “good enough.”


Related Stories:

American Children Growing Less Creative

How Much Is Too Much Homework?

Why We Need To Encourage Curiosity In Students



SeattleAnn S.
Ann S5 years ago

It depends on the area of study. You must practice rote memorization in order to be a decent lawyer, whereas rote memorization alone in the physical sciences damages the ability to think critically and prevents creative research.

Virginia B.
Virginia B5 years ago

As an educator (I started at age 14!), I can't agree. Our capacity to remember must be enhanced by repetition. Memorization is a skill, which all students ought to acquire. It is one of our innate gifts and infinitely expandable. Educators haven't noticed, for example, how eagerly our youngsters memorize the lyrics to their favorite pop tunes. It is impossible to master a foreign language without memorization of grammar rules and vocabulary. They don't come to us via osmosis! We retain for a long time, that into which we have put great effort into learning. Those are the hard facts.
Teachers, who don't train their students in the discipline of memorization are cutting off the ambitious ones from ever seeking a career in such fields as medicine or law, which require enormous efforts in committing massive amounts to memory.

Donna Hamilton
Donna Hamilton5 years ago

Interesting article - thanks for posting.

Catherine Dash
Catherine D5 years ago

In one way or other, that is how one learns everything.

Most things to know have rather few elements to understand.

It can be disguised as a game, make it amusing. However, learning of anything is nothing less than repetition, over and over again until it becomes second nature.

American pedagogy loads up the education "experience" with too may redundant and contradictory elements. It should not take much more than one year to learn most anything.

I can be a torture initially, but gets easier over time.

Sue H.
Sue H5 years ago

Thanks for sharing this article.... food for thought.

Robert O.
Robert O5 years ago

Very valid points thanks Julie.

J C Bro
J C Brou5 years ago

good article

Joslynne Davidson

Certain things need to be learned by rote-mutliplication tables and math formulas are two examples. You don't have to 'relate' to or marry multiplication tables. I see high school students every day who count on their fingers and draw little sticks to multiply. They spend so much time trying to figure out how to multiply through addition that they just don't get the rest of the problem. It is so sad-they don't know their formulas and cannot plug in the numbers. I learned these things by rote so I don't have to spend a lot of time relating and understanding the basics. and I got A's in both of my statistics classes.

George Boggs
George Boggs5 years ago

Learning is a process. Education is acquiring knowledge. Teachers are suppose to impart knowledge to the student. How teachers do this effectively is the key. If they can not adapt to the students capability they will fail. The teachers have to figure out what works and what doesn't. A lot of them just do not care. Some go on to be educators, not teachers. There is a difference. Rote memory helps, but explaining the mistakes would be better. Promoting a student may help their self esteem, but do nothing for their education. As long as we have been doing this, we should be closing in on the answer. Sadly we are not.

Rosie Lopez
Rosie Lopez5 years ago

thanks for sharing!