Practice makes perfect: The harder you practice, the better you play

Topic(s): learning, training
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2013)
Article: Learner-controlled practice difficulty in the training of a complex task: Cognitive and motivational mechanisms
Authors: Michael G. Hughes, Eric Anthony Day, Xiaoqian Wang, Matthew J. Schuelke, Matthew L. Arsenault, Lauren N. Harkrider, and Olivia D. Cooper
Reviewed by: Scott Charles Sitrin

Let’s imagine that you are learning a new skill, and in honor of the end of summer, let’s say that skill is sunbathing. Assuming that you want to be an expert sunbather, your path to greatness will depend on the type of practice that you do. If you spend 15 minutes by the pool with heavy cloud coverage, your practice intensity would not be as high as someone baking for six hours under direct sunlight during a day that is nearly 100 degrees. Which person, the former or the latter, will be Mr. or Mrs. Hawaiian Tropic? If you said the latter, as in the person who puts in six hours of intense and difficult practice, then you’d be correct. This observation – that the intensity and difficulty of practice relate to performance – was empirically supported by a study by researchers from the University of Oklahoma, though their subjects were learning how to play a video game instead of sunbathing.

In this study, when the subjects were learning how to play a video game, those who chose difficult practice sessions tended to play the video game at a higher level than those who chose easier practice sessions. Further, these Sooners also gave us insight into who was likely to select difficult types of practices: those who were smart, had prior video-game experience, were self-confident, and were told that making errors is an essential part of learning were more likely to choose to engage in difficult types of practice. Some of these factors are out of our control, but not all. These findings give us greater insight into how to help in-person and virtual learners out there get the most out of their practice – and therefore, performance. Now, where are my sunglasses….