Exploring How Practice Affects Performance

Credit: iStock.com/Wavebreakmedia
Credit: iStock.com/Wavebreakmedia
“Practice makes perfect!” Although the perfection part remains elusive, we’ve all experienced how practice improves performance. But why? What changes during practice? And why do those changes result in better performance? Those questions matter to teachers and students. As teachers we regularly advocate that students practice (“do more problems,” “revise your first draft”), but often this advice falls on deaf ears.

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“Practice makes perfect!”

Although the perfection part remains elusive, we’ve all experienced how practice improves performance. But why? What changes during practice? And why do those changes result in better performance? Those questions matter to teachers and students. As teachers we regularly advocate that students practice (“do more problems,” “revise your first draft”), but often this advice falls on deaf ears.

Jeff Shrager (2021) uses a simple activity that “introduces students to the basics of practice effects, and to some of its complexities” (p.17). Students assemble in three-person groups, with each member playing one role: seeker, guide, or timer. Each group needs card stock, sticky paper, and a timer. Students prepare the card by writing the numbers 1 through 10 on pieces of sticky paper, then they put the 1 in the upper left-hand corner of the card and randomly position the rest of the numbers on the card. The groups exchange cards, and as they do, the seeker closes their eyes. The guide places the seeker’s finger on the number 1 on the index card. The timer in the group starts tracking the time. Using only auditory directions, the guide helps the seeker touch each of the remaining numbers. The timer records how long it takes to finish. The seeker and guide do five or six additional trials. Shrager graphs the time scores for each group, and those scores mostly decrease.

Students usually start the debrief discussion with the most obvious observation. Decreases in time are largest in the early trials—that’s known as the “power law of practice.” Why does more improvement occur in those first trials? Shrager asks students to think about their procedures and how they changed in those early and later rounds. Students talk about cognitive changes; for instance, the seeker’s memory pattern starts to develop, enabling easier location of the numbers. This “motor memory” is what drives physical execution of the task. But lots of other changes are occurring as well.

Communication between the seeker and guide changes as they discover strategies that help and hinder their locating the numbers. If the two sit across from each another, directional confusion frequently results. “Left” is “right” depending on seat location, and so adjustments must occur. Sometimes the guide moves to sit next to the seeker. The seeker and the guide make strategy changes. Seekers frequently discover that they can use multiple fingers as they search for numbers. In some cases, the paper with the numbers on it gets be repositioned. Shrager sums up what comes out of discussion of the activity: “Looking closely at the sources of change, reveals a complex interaction among the cognitive, physical, and interpersonal elements of human activity” (p. 21). In other words, practice is a multifaceted human activity involving much more than mindless repetition of the task—something regularly noted in the work on deliberative practice.

Shrager believes that the early decreases in completion times result more from strategy changes (better communication and error resolution) than from the development of motor memory. But at some point those processes cross, and motor memory development starts to account for most of the improvement. He cites research to support this belief.

From the activity students see how practice improves when they collaborate with teachers, coaches, and maybe even their parents. Learners do sometimes find themselves in situations where they have to develop motor memory and discover structural changes on their own—some of us even enjoy learning this way—but in educational environments students have access to others whose contributions can increase the effectiveness of practice routines. And some tasks, like this one, can’t be completed, yet alone improved, without close collaboration. For teachers, their role in guiding practice raises all sorts of questions about the best times to intervene and what interventions promote the most improvement.

An activity like this showcases the persuasive power of a good active learning experience. Those laissez-faire student attitudes about practice suddenly become more energized commitments to practice. And the article shows how to use the activity to go beyond motivating more practice. A debrief discussion can deepen students understanding of why practice improves performance, and ferreting out the reasons provides learners with the power to start exercising some control over them. Strategy changes can become less accidental and more purposeful. Collaborations with others can be pursued. Perhaps an effective active learning activity like this one renews teacher commitments to telling students less and letting them discover more.

Reference

Shrager, J. (2021). Practice makes better: A classroom investigation of practice effects. Journal of College Science Teaching, 50(3), 17–22. http://digital.nsta.org/publication/?m=12081&i=687685&p=18&ver=html5