We learned that your brain comprises two main cognitive areas: the working memory (WM) where the thinking gets done and the long term memory (LTM) where knowledge is stored, usually in concrete form when it is first learned. The amount of information that can be held in WM is extremely limited in both size (about seven chunks) and duration (less than 30 seconds). The LTM is not so constrained.
The object of education is to not only get that information into LTM where it is somewhat protected from the ravages of forgetfulness but also to organize that information around deep structure so it is generalizable to new situations. Today's installment will deal with how to accomplish this.
"Practice, Practice, Practice"
First the bad news. Practice does not make perfect. If you practice or rehearse to perfection, you will be perfect today. You will likely not be perfect a few days later. It is not good enough to learn something to mastery, you have to overlearn it, past the point of mastery, if you want to retain it in LTM. With sufficient practice the skill or knowledge will become automatic.
Automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low level details required. When cognitive processes become automatic, they demand very little space in working memory, they occur rapidly, and they often occur without conscious effort. When a skill is automatic, the knowledge necessary to effect that skill can be transferred back and forth between LTM and WM with ease.
Nearly everybody reading this article is an expert reader. Decoding words is automatic for you. You do not need to laboriously piece together the letters of each word to puzzle out its identity. Your mind seems to divine the meaning of prose immediately and without effort on your part. Try this classic demonstration of automaticity for advanced readers. In this task you are asked to name the ink color in which the words are printed, but ignore the word that the letters spell. Hence for the stimulus Turkey, the proper response is "blue."
First try this list:
Now try this list:
The second list is much harder to read than the first list because, for you, reading is automatic. Even though you try not to read the words that the letters form, you read them automatically and doing so conflicts with naming the ink color. For someone who cannot read, the second list is no harder than the first.For a new skill to become automatic or for new knowledge to become long lasting, sustained practice beyond the point of mastery is necessary. Practice needs to be regular and ongoing and involve increasingly difficult and more complex problems. Practice distributed over several sessions generally leads to better memory of the information. This is known as the spacing effect.
Generally speaking, when something is first learned massed practice (lots of practice) works best followed by many sessions of distributed practice (less practice, but spaced).
And, as you may recall from the last installment, sustained practice also aids the mind in organizing knowledge around deep abstract structure instead of around concrete surface features which the mind is biased to do.
And here's the most important point so I'm going to place it in bold.
No one has yet found a short cut or golden road around the need for sustained practice for learning.
To educators, practice is disparaged as "kill and drill." They don't like it, so they want to avoid it. They are looking for a shortcut around the need for distributed practice to get students to mastery. Fundamentally, they are looking for magic. This is an ongoing theme in modern education. Look at nearly every education reform in recent time and you'll see a common characteristic--the desire to reduce the need for practice.
The next installment will be on how knowing stuff helps you learn more stuff.
Go to Installment four now.