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Learning new things requires you to practise, like how to play a musical instrument. However, new research suggests that sometimes less is more.
Image: Frinck51/Wikimedia commons

When you learn something new, be it a musical instrument or how to ride a bike, you usually need to practise. Practising means we get better at doing things and learning things we didn’t know before. It makes sense that to get better at something we should practise longer – right?

It might not be so simple. When you learn something new, it’s not just what you do in training that matters, it’s also what happens afterwards. Your brain needs time to process the new information, so that it stays in your memory for later. This is called consolidation, and the best time for it to happen is while you sleep.

Researchers from the University of New South Wales wanted to know more about ‘wakeful consolidation’; that is, consolidation that happens while you’re still awake. They set up an experiment where three groups of participants tracked dots on a computer screen. One group practised for one hour straight and another for two hours straight. The third group practised for two hours in total, but they had a break after one hour. During the break participants weren’t allowed to sleep, but could do anything else, like go for a walk or read a book.

By the second day, the researchers found that the group that had the break were better at the activity than those who practised for two hours without one. What’s more, of the groups that didn’t have a break, the group that practised for only one hour did better than those that practised for two.

The researchers suggest that this is because the group that practised longer didn’t have time to consolidate what they learned in the first hour. The group that did have a break, and the group that practised for a shorter time, did have time to consolidate, so they performed better the next day.

This research has important implications for teaching and learning. It provides evidence that in order to learn most effectively, students shouldn’t slug it out too long on the one topic. Taking breaks mean you might be able to learn more, for less.

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