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To master skills faster, tweak your practice routine, researchers say

Slight changes during repeat practice sessions may help people learn motor skills more quickly, study suggests

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.

In a study of 86 healthy volunteers asked to learn a computer-based motor skill, those who quickly adjusted to a modified practice session performed better than those who repeated their original task, the researchers found. The results support the idea that a process called reconsolidation—in which existing memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge—plays a key role in strengthening motor skills, says senior study author Pablo A. Celnik.

"What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row," says Celnik, professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine..

The work, described in the Jan. 28 edition of the journal Current Biology, has implications not only for leisure skills, like learning to play a musical instrument or a sport, but also for helping patients with stroke and other neurological conditions regain lost motor function, he says.

"Our results are important because little was known before about how reconsolidation works in relation to motor skill development. This shows how simple manipulations during training can lead to more rapid and larger motor skill gains because of reconsolidation," Celnik says. "The goal is to develop novel behavioral interventions and training schedules that give people more improvement for the same amount of practice time."

For the study, volunteers came to Celnik's laboratory to learn and perform an isometric pinch task over the course of two or three 45-minute sessions. This entailed squeezing a device called a force transducer to move a computer cursor across a monitor. The screen test featured five windows and a "home space." Participants were asked to move the cursor from home to the various windows in a set pattern as quickly and accurately as possible.

Gains in performance, such as a speedier and more accurate completion of the task, nearly doubled among those who were given a slightly altered second session, compared to those who repeated the same task, Celnik says. He adds that the alterations in training have to 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 sessions, brings no significant benefit to motor learning.

"If you make the altered task too different, people do not get the gain we observed during reconsolidation," he says. "The modification between sessions needs to be subtle."

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