Practice Variations and Skill (Johns Hopkins)

When practicing and learning a new skill, making slight changes during repeat practice sessions may help people master the skill faster than practicing the task in precisely the same way, Johns Hopkins researchers report:

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Interesting. I wonder what the threshold is, and what the bounds on the types of variation are.

I’m also curious about the applications in art education. An obvious example would be changing up the hardness of your graphite or charcoal for exercises involving pressure. I’m sure there are lots of other places this could be useful. I’ll have to think on it.

Thanks for sharing!


Greetings Tim,

A fascinating question for sure. I would suspect that such threshold would be determined by the nature of the activity being practiced. Even then, it might be quite difficult to quantify this into some “global rule” as different activities automatize low-level activities or “chunk” motor modulations in specific ways.

Again though, Dr. Celnik states that the alterations in training should be small… “something akin to slightly adjusting the size or weight of a baseball bat, tennis racket or soccer ball in between practice sessions”. Current studies by Celnik’s team, still underway and not yet published, suggest that changing a practice session too much, like playing badminton in between tennis bouts, brings no significant benefit to motor learning.

We incorporate these “small” variations in our drawing program by using paper (for our deliberate practice exercises) that contains variation in texture from side to side (one side of the sheet having a greater tooth than another) in addition to using several different grades of charcoal and pastel. I tell my students that you can never make more than one mark on any given surface as it is inherently changed with each mark.

I would be interested to hear more of your thoughts on this issue when you have time,


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