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Practicing different versions of the same skill is effective

This is an excerpt from Let's Play! by Jane Watkinson.

People often practice the same skill over and over in the same way; teachers and coaches encourage their students or players to do, say, 20 consecutive turns in exactly the same way. Research suggests, however, that this may not make for good practice. Many researchers in the field of skill acquisition believe firmly that variability of practice is a positive thing when learning a new skill. Rather than do a task repeatedly in exactly the same way, it is better to vary it in some dimension. After all, how often does one encounter a situation that requires performance of identical movements over and over?

Let’s consider an example. In helping a child practice catching a ball that rebounds from a wall, a parent or teacher may toss the ball against the wall. The child’s job is to catch the ball, either as it rebounds directly from the wall or after it bounces off the ground. Tradition would suggest throwing the ball against the wall in the very same way (i.e., with the same speed, height, angle, and place of rebound) for many trials until the child gets good at catching the expected rebound. The idea of this kind of practice is that the ball’s flight gets to be highly predictable and the child becomes better able to catch it.

The principle of variability in practice, however, suggests that the ball should be tossed against the wall at different heights, different speeds, and different angles and that it should rebound to different places. In fact, the toss should be done a little differently each time. In this way, the child has to problem-solve each time he or she tries to catch the ball. By making a new “plan” each time, the catcher may be establishing rules or guidelines (whether conscious or unconscious) about the flights of balls and how to intercept them. Researchers think that expert ballplayers develop both implicit and explicit rules about ball flights based on all of their experiences with ball flights, and that they use these rules to interpret the information they get from seeing the very first images of, say, a ball coming off a baseball bat. They catch sight of the ball going toward the bat and the contact point, and they then make predictions about how far the ball will travel, how high, how fast. This phenomenon may explain why outstanding goalies can react to a puck coming off a hockey stick or a soccer ball coming off a foot before other people even know what is happening. They have had thousands of different kinds of practice trials, and they have developed rules of thumb that tell them where the puck will go based on their very first glimpse of it. Even when they have never seen a puck approach the goal in a certain way, they can predict where it will go and when it will arrive because they use rules based on previous experience to make predictions in new situations.

Practicing the same skill differently, then, can be beneficial, even if it seems to be harder at first. Thus if you are helping a child learn to catch a rebounding ball, it might make sense to mix soft tosses—both high and low—with harder (faster) high and low balls. You might toss the ball so that it rebounds to the child’s left and then to the right, or high and then low, or soft and then hard. In this way, the child will have an opportunity to learn what flight patterns are like and to establish rules in his or her mind that may help with future catches! The child will gain knowledge about ball flights, rebound angle, and speed that will help him or her deal with new rebounds when they are encountered. It is not hard to imagine how important thinking is to this activity!

Take care, however, not to make each trial so hard that the child always fails. Help the child do something different each time but strive to make each of the turns manageable. You can make initial attempts at a skill easier by giving cues—for example, “Here comes a faster one” or “I might throw this one high or I might throw it low. Be ready!” If the child experiences some success on moderately hard tasks, along with success on easy tasks and some failures on harder tasks, then he or she can develop confidence and competence in adapting to varied situations. It is crucial to make sure that the child knows you think failing at some of the tasks is a good way to learn. That is, errorless performance may not be the best way to learn, and it certainly won’t help a child know what he or she can and cannot do!

This is an excerpt from Let’s Play.