A short study in learning

Dr. Christopher Cushion (School of Sport Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University) said this: 'learners learn, and coaches help that process – sometimes.'

Since listening to Dr. Cushion a few years back, I have always been challenged by the final word that crept into that last sentence. If sometimes we help that process, does that mean that for much of the time we can actually hurt it? I suspect so, and over the years in my willingness and desire to help and to be the model coach I'm sure that my coaching practices and behaviours have at times just got in the way of the learner learning!

I have therefore devoted myself to become as student of learning and have been inspired, as I suspect many of you have, by such books as Mindset, The Talent Code, Bounce, The Art of Learning, Outliars and many more.

Most recently I have turned my attention to a book by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roedinger III and Mark A. McDaniel called Make it Stick – The Science of Successful Learning. Daniel L. Schacter, author of The Seven Sins of Memory says: 'Learning is essential and life-long. Yet as these authors argue convincingly, people often use exactly the wrong strategies and don't appreciate the ones that work. We've learned a lot in the last decade about applying cognitive sciences to real-world learning, and this book combines everyday examples with clear explanations of the research. It's easy to read-and should be easy to learn from too!'

The authors suggest that there are a number of 'immutable aspects of learning that we can probably all agree on.' First, for learning to be useful, it requires memory so what we've learned is still there when we need it. We then need to keep learning and remembering all our lives, and finally learning is an acquired skill and the most effective strategies are often counterintuitive.

Whilst I am in no position to summarise in a short article a study that took ten years at least to complete I would like to focus this article on a few key ideas that I found I could immediately transfer into my coaching and indeed my parenting (have two boys aged 10 and 12). Some of their findings of course have been exposed to the teaching/coaching fraternity before this so if it's old news to you perhaps this will simply serve as a little reminder as to what you've already learned!

1. 'Learning is deeper and more durable when it's effortful.' I equate this to Daniel Coyle's position to learning in The Talent Code when he refers to finding the 'sweet spot at the very edge of your ability.' In addition to this, our authors add that 'we are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we're not. When the going is harder and slower and it doesn't feel productive, we are drawn to strategies that feel more fruitful, unaware that the gains from these strategies are often temporary.'

2. 'Rereading text and massed practice of a skill or new knowledge are by far the preferred study strategies of learners of all stripes, but they're also among the least productive. By massed practice we mean the single-minded, rapid-fire repetition of something you're trying to burn into memory, the 'practice-practice-practice' of conventional wisdom.' Massed practice (200 repetitions of a 'new' forehand for example) can 'give rise to feelings of fluency that are taken to be signs of mastery, but for true mastery or durability these strategies are largely a waste of time.'

'Many teachers believe that if they can make learning easier and faster, the learning will be better. Much research turns this belief on its head: when learning is harder, it's stronger and lasts longer. It's widely believed by teachers, trainers, and coaches that the most effective way to master a new skill is to give it dogged, single-minded focus, practicing over and over until you've got it down. Our faith in this runs deep, because most of us see fast gains during the learning phase of massed practice. What's apparent from the research is that gains achieved during massed practice are transitory and melt away quickly.'

3. Retrieval practice on the other hand is defined as 'recalling facts or concepts or events from memory – is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.' In our case as coaches we might be talking more about retrieval practice of a motor skill, but the process is the same. 'Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting.....periodic practice arrests forgetting, strengthens retrieval routines, and is essential for hanging onto the knowledge you want to gain.'

Therefore, when you 'space out practice' at a task and get a little rusty between sessions, or you interleave the practice of two or more subjects, retrieval is harder and feels less productive, but the effort produces longer lasting learning and enable more versatile application of it in later settings.'

4. If retrieval practice is so important to the learning process, as coaches we need to become expert at 'testing'. Testing of course has it's own reputation: 'the growing focus over recent years on standardized assessment, in particular, has turned testing into a lightning rod for frustration over how to achieve the country's education goals......but if we stop thinking of testing as a dipstick to measure learning-if we think of it as practicing retrieval of learning from memory rather than “testing,” we open ourselves up to another possibility: the use of testing as a tool for learning.

'The power of retrieval as a learning tool is known among pychologists as the testing effect....we've long known that the act of making that knowledge easier to call up again in the future. In his essay on memory, Aristotle wrote: 'exercise in repeatedly recalling a thing strengthens the memory.'

'We know from empirical research that practicing retrieval makes learning stick for better than reexposure to the original material does. This is the testing effect, also known as the retrieval-practice effect.'

In conclusion, this is a huge body of work but my key takeaways so far have been these:

  • Mix up (interleave), vary, and space out your practice

  • Be confident and able to move onto another area of skill acquisition before that skill is mastered. This may leave you and the learner a little frustrated so learn to cope with that

  • Build loads of 'low stake tests' into your coaching. You may even start a lesson with, 'ok, let's run a little test to see what you can retrieve from last week's session.' Or having worked on the chopper grip for the serve at the beginning of the session, stop your work half-way through and test it!

  • Move away from practice-practice-practice to practice-retrieve-practice!


Have fun and enjoy the learning.


Written by Mike James, October 2014