When it comes to learning a new skill we are often told that repetition is the optimal choice. After all it seems to make sense. If I want to learn a new chord on guitar I keep doing that same chord again and again, until it becomes instinctive. This does work of course but, according to a study conducted by a team of researchers at John Hopkins University there is a more efficient method.
Halve the time to mastery
In the article ‘New Method Helps You Learn Skills Twice As Fast‘ the author talks about how researchers recruited 86 volunteers to learn a new skill. The skill was moving a cursor on a computer screen by squeezing a device, opposed to using a mouse. There were three groups. 1. The control group who were given a one-off initial training session. 2. Group two were also given the training session but, had to wait 6 hours before beginning. 3. Group three did the same as group two, but with an additional session where they altered the controller slightly, resulting in having to adjust. On the following day they were all required to perform the skill again with the controller being reset back to the original setting. The result was group three was able to adapt to increasing difficulty compared to groups one and two.
Modify your practice
The following quote sums up the study.
“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,” said lead researcher Pablo Celnik, from Johns Hopkins University. My 3 decades of experience and research in the field of learning guitar led me to a similar conclusion. I believe that when we teach a skill like guitar in a repetitive fashion it quickly becomes boring. Ask anyone to do the same thing more than 10 times and they will quickly switch off. When they switch off the learning stops and in the case of guitar teachers, the students soon disappear. To keep students interested and engaged there needs to be variety. As they say ‘variety is the spice of life’.
Too much variety
Students and teachers often interpret boredom as a sign that it’s time to switch to a completely different task. Their intentions are good but a major switch dilutes focus. Sticking to one skill but approaching it in different ways is the right strategy. Focusing on one skill will allow it to develop faster which builds confidence. Confidence is a critical factor in learning any skill because it’s what keeps us in the game. This means we need to strike a balance between staying on task and variety. Making small changes to our approach gives us the variety we seek but keeps us on task.
The ‘folding corner’ technique
Years ago I developed a method for learning guitar chords in less time which I called The ‘folding corner’ technique. When you fold the corner of a piece of paper it will sit up like a dog ear. No matter how much you push it down flat it will continue to bounce back up. The only way to flatten back out is by folding it back the other way. This same solution can be applied to learning a chord. What makes the process of playing a chord slow is the fact that fingers are placed in a 1, 2, 3, 4 sequence. By changing the sequence around (folding the corner back the other way) to 4, 3, 2, 1 it flattens the chord out. In other words the fingers come down all at once which means less time to form the chord shape. By practicing the folding corner technique you will learn chords faster plus, you will make faster changes between chord shapes. You can take this idea one step further by practicing different sequences. Basically any combination of 1, 2, 3, 4 you can think of.
There is always a better way
What this research tells us is there is always a better way to do something if you look hard enough. Many guitar students and teachers get stuck in ruts doing the same old exercises and getting the same old results. One must be willing to research and experiment to find new and improved methods and techniques for learning. Can you think of any ways to apply the above finding to your own practice?