It is no secret that practice is a crucial element in the learning journey and is effective in many different educational contexts. Proverbs such as “practice is the best master” and “practice makes perfect” all contain a grain of truth, and in this article, we discuss why this is the case.
Practising results in the more effective use of your cognitive resources
The brain is an amazing and complex organ, and its different parts play a crucial role in the process of learning. The brain has billions of neurons connected with different neural pathways, enabling you to learn and remember immense amounts of information. Despite the massive capacity and potential of the brain for learning, it also has some limitations that we should be aware of.
One limitation is our working memories and its limited capacity to hold information. Based on the latest research in Cognitive Psychology and Educational Neuroscience we know that our working memory is a type of storage that has a limited short-term capacity. Our working memory is also crucial to consolidate new information to our long-term memories. If the working memory receives too much information in a short period, we will forget some of the information as it exceeds our working memory capacity.
This is a problem when we think about the amount of work learners are required to process to master their different subjects. It is simply impossible to force all that information into your working memory in a short period. Luckily, insights from the Learning Sciences offer us many ways to reduce the strain on our working memory and, therefore, help learners use their cognitive resources as efficiently as possible.
Practice makes perfect
Practice and understanding the role of practice is one of the best tools we have to reduce the strain on the working memory. Throughout our lives we “practice” certain things to the extent that they become automatic. Take our names for instance. When you hear your name, you can immediately focus on reacting to being called instead of thinking about your name itself. You can also have a complex discussion with a friend while walking home from the shop, without thinking about the route. We have repeated or “practised” these things to the extent that they are now automatic.
The same is true in educational contexts. When you practice certain elements of your learning material and you keep practising it long enough, that material becomes automatic. Mental maths is a fantastic example to illustrate this point. Learners who practice mental maths to the point where it becomes automatic have a much easier time with Mathematics in general, as they never have to use valuable cognitive resources to do basic calculations. They can instead focus their cognitive resources to solve the more complex parts of the problem.
With this in mind, there are some key areas of learning where practice makes a big difference according to cognitive scientist professor Daniel Willingham.
- The core skills and knowledge that will be repeatedly used in the subject. We already discussed the maths example above and mental maths is an excellent example of something that will be used repeatedly in this subject. Coding and robotics are popular and important subjects and can also benefit from practice that makes core skills and knowledge automatic. If learners practice basic coding principles and syntax to the extent that it becomes automatic, they can focus their cognitive efforts on solving other problems and building outstanding pieces of software.
- Short-term knowledge that is important for long-term retention of other key concepts. There are times when learners are required to be proficient in certain key concepts needed to learn new and more complex topics. In these cases, long-term practice may not be needed, but intense short-term practice helps learners to be ready for the new complex work. Because they practised the material beforehand, they will have their cognitive resources available to master the new, more complex work.
- Knowledge that is important in the long-term, beyond a specific year or subject. The biggest topic here would most probably be language and literacy skills. Learners waste precious cognitive resources when they struggle to understand questions in an exam or struggle to understand instructions for certain tasks. By practising basic language and literacy skills until they become automatic, learners will reap the benefits for the entirety of their education and professional lives.
Most times practice really does make perfect and by understanding the role of practice in your educational journey you can excel in your subjects and use your cognitive resources in the most effective ways.