Artists might think that sheer repetition is the means to improve their paintings. We often hear reference to putting miles on the brush. But according to the latest neurological research in the book Make It Stick this metaphor is incorrect. Using repetitive practise as a means to move forward is a strategy called massed learning–a strategy basketball players use when they spend endless hours shooting free throws. But this type of practise induces only short term learning–much like when you cram for a test and forget everything you “learned” within a week.
A better alternative is interleaved learning or spaced learning. This means that you alternate between diverse activities to allow the mind to shift gears. This is a counterintuitive way to learn because to students the massed practise method seems like they are learning at the maximum level. When the same students try the spacing or interleaving method it seems as though they are not learning as fast. However research confirms that the perception of faster learning with massed learning is an illusion.
Massed learning can be likened to binge eating. Getting massive amounts of information into the brain does not equate to retaining the information. Without spacing or interleaving there are no desirable difficulties, that is, an interval of time that makes retrieval of the newly acquired information difficult but not impossible to retrieve. A fixed practise ritual of massed learning is an impediment to learning. Here are the steps to maximum learning:
ENCODING- This is accumulating the experience necessary to begin making associations. For example, in order to learn which consistency of paint is best for you you need to experience various mediums. Reading about mediums is a start but not enough. It is best to accumulate hands-on experience to form practical knowledge from which your subconscious mind will later form a myriad of associations. New learning depends on prior learning.
CONSOLIDATION- The information accumulated is condensed by deep processing, often subconscious, where connections and relationships are explored. Resting the mind is critical as is adequate sleep. If stress levels are too high cortisol is released into the bloodstream diminishing the consolidation process. The techniques of interleaving and spacing help to create desirable difficulties in the consolidation process.
RECONSOLIDATION- At the right interval, using interleaving and spacing, review what you have learned by retrieving the new observations. Mistakes are assimilated and reconfigured. Mistakes are not a necessary evil–they are a critical component of acquired information. They are integral to the building blocks of experience. Analysis and reflection on mistakes as well as successes is a form of retrieval that strengthens learning. To be continued–
Brad Teare–March 2015