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How practice makes perfect

Posted on: March 18, 2017

The adage “practice makes perfect” is an imperfect one. There is no point practising mindlessly nor is there any actual muscle memory. Such unscientific assumptions have, unfortunately, become the basis for homework to keep kids busy or for blind drill.

We now have neurological and cognitive research that helps us understand what practice does and which kinds of practice actually help.


Video source

This TED-Ed video briefly explains how our psychomotor functions refine with practice. I fill in a few blanks based on basic biology and educational psychology.

Neurologically speaking, effective practice is due to the increased myelination of our motor neurones. This strengthens neural transmission, i.e., the signals from the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) to the peripheral nervous system (nerves connected to muscles).

Cognitive science has also unlocked secrets on what makes for effective practice. Such practice is consistent and focused to target at weakness or what is “at the edge” of current abilities.

While drills might focus on what you are already competent at, cognitive science suggests that we concentrate on what is just outside our zone of proximal development.

The video focused largely on psychomotor skills and did not dwell on social aspects of cognition or construction. These are just as important, and arguably more so, in the contexts of learning languages, negotiating cultures, or establishing schema and mindsets.

We have much to learn about how and why we learn. The worst thing we can do is ignore good research and listen only to unquestioned tradition.

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