How to learn skills based on science
Train Your Mind for Peak Performance: A Science-Based Approach for Achieving Your Goals
Published November 15, 2013
By Lyle E. Bourne Jr. and Alice F. Healy
Based on decades of scientific research, an easy to read book on how to learn skills fast and effectively . Discover how it’s different from learning facts and the pitfalls duringskill acquisition.

Pros:

  • Science-based, summarizing decades of research on effective skill training
  • Easy-to-read
  • Simple examples illustrating key points
  • Highlights difference between learning facts and skills
  • Provides unique insight that techniques that help learning a skill in one area can impair skill performance in another

Cons:

  • Misleading title as you get no sense it talks about how to learn skills
  • Wished they went more into the knowledge acquisition side
  • Their methods for learning skills quickly and for retaining them seemed to overlap. It wasn’t clear how they were different (nitpick)
  • Doesn’t really have a solid example of a framework integrating all their principles
  • Wished they listed specific scientific studies supporting their points (nit-pick as  details were all in another book)

Downloading skills into your brain – what science says

Wouldn’t it be great if we could all jack in like Neo in the Matrix and simply download any new skill. Well, until that day happens, we are stuck with learning skills the old-fashion way or are we? I read this book because I want to learn skills quickly (aka Rapid Skill Acquisition). There are never enough hours in the day and simply too many demands on my time. I need something effective and efficient. Hence, my quest to find any materials on this topic. My first two books on rapid skill acquisition were Kaufman’s The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything Fast and Ferriss’ 4-Hour Chef (it’s more than just a cookbook). While I loved what they wrote, the lack of scientific citations and the author’s idiosyncrasies bugged me. In particular, Ferriss is not your typical person. If you’ve read any of his other works, The 4-hour Workweek and The 4 Hour Body, you know he’s an intense guy. He makes numerous claims that you can become world-class in any skill in under 6 months. While he does make some excellent points, you wonder if his approach really works for you. What I wanted was a science-backed approach tested on lots of people. I wanted to know what scientists say about how to learn skills quickly and effectively. That’s where I came across Train Your Mind for Peak Performance. In it, two psychology professors summarized decades of research on skill training into a compact, easy to read form.

Facts can be learned in one shot, skills not

To start, the authors define a fact as apiece of information whereas a skill is the ability to do something with that information. They call how well you use that practiced skill, performance. Why is that important? You can learn facts in a single sitting but not skills. Simply knowing information doesn’t mean you immediately know how to use it. Whether it’s a mental or physical skill, it takes time for your mind/body to learn and apply things. So, your performance can only be improved with practice. Rarely can you nail a skill in the first attempt. It will take several trials. So, sorry Neo-wannabes, downloading kung-fu into your brain doesn’t mean your body can instantly do those flying kicks. There is no free lunch. In fact, the authors state if something is easy to pickup it’s easy to lose. But there is good news. The more you train the more you retain. And science now provides more effective ways to learn skills faster and better than what’s taught in school.

3 pillars to learning a skill fast and effectively, but they may conflict

First,your skill performance is based on 3 pillars:
  • Efficiency: how well do you learn concepts to maximize training efficiency
  • Durability: how good is your recall and application of those concepts to retain your skill
  • Generalizability: how strong are you in applying what you’ve learned to new situations
If you address the above 3 in your skill acquisition, you not only shorten your training time but retain your skill better and can apply it to new situations. The last point is important as this distinguishes experts from newbies. The challenge is that techniques that work well for one pillar may be detrimental for others. That’s what makes skill acquisition hard.

Efficiency minimizes training time

Efficiency focuses on minimizing the time and effort to pickup skill basics. Applying some of the methods below to your practice or learning sessions impact efficiency:
  • Getting the right feedback on your training: there are at least two kinds of feedback, immediate which is trial-by-trial and periodic where you check your performance after you’re done a set of trials. It’s important to understand which one works for you as some can retard learning by disrupting your flow. For most skills, the authors recommend periodic feedback. Either way, learn what you’re doing wrong and correct it.
  • Finding your zone of learnability: also known as the Goldilocks zone, you don’t want learning material that is either too easy (you get bored) or too hard (you get overwhelmed). If you’re out of the zone, your motivation can flag.
  • Doing mental practice: if you can’t actually practice the skill, imagine going through the steps in your head. The authors observe in some cases the mind/body can’t tell the difference so you still get the benefit of practice even without the resources.
  • Varying your focus of attention: in the beginning, focus on getting the skill mechanics right but later emphasize your performance. For example, once you know the basics of a tennis swing, you don’t want to overthink each step but rather examine using your swing to improve ball handling.
  • Use spacing: during practice sessions, resting is important for learning skills (but not actually for learning facts).
  • Introducing a cognitive antidote: to minimize boredom, add a simple mental twist to your practice to keep things interesting.
  • Doing part-task training: breaking down a skill into manageable parts and practicing each of those smaller pieces. Note, this is not great for skills which involve many steps going on at the same time.

Durability ensures you retain what you learned

Durability emphasizes remembering what you learned. The challenge is some methods that improve efficiency slow down retention or generalizability. The latter is an issue because generalizability is the hallmark of experts. The conflict comes because efficiency focuses on improving speed and accuracy. It works best on material you’ve already seen. Generalizability is about transferring the knowledge and skill to new material so it’s the opposite case. Consider the following approaches as part of your training to enhance durability:

Approaches that slow down learning (long term gain in retention, but lower efficiency):

  • Varying task difficulty (aka mixing vs blocking) is about adding mental challenges to learning. For example, say you need to identify the style of different artists by looking at their paintings. A mixed training session is where you mix samples of each artist in some random order. In blocked training, one sees samples of each artist several times before moving to the next artist. While more frustrating to students initially, the data suggests mixed training leads to better retention compared to blocked. It’s also a more a realistic training scenario since blocked situations aren’t as common in real-life.
  • Strategically using existing knowledge to relate new material to something that you have learned in the past. This creates a link between the old and new but takes time to create and reinforce.
  • Using memory strategies, such as memory palace where you create a virtual palace in your mind to store words or concepts in specific locations or using mnemonics to associate words/concepts with various triggers. Again, this is powerful for recall but takes time to create.

Approaches that don’t slow learning:

  • Chunking improves recall by grouping concepts by something that they have in common or by some principle, such as rearranging random letters into words you recognize. For example, if you had to memorize the sequence of letters L-L-A-C-E-R-O-T-Y-S-A-E-E-R-A-S-E-C-N-E-T-N-E-S-T-R-O-H-S, it would be difficult. But if you can rearrange them to form SHORT SENTENCES ARE EASY TO RECALL, then retention is easy.
  • Self-testing forces the individual to practice recall and retrieval from memory. Ideally, one should learn under the same conditions as the test to maximize retention.
  • Re-generating information instead of just re-reading the material forces the individual to actively reconstruct the knowledge.

Generalizability is transferring what you learned to something new

What’s the point of having a skill if you can’t apply it to something new? Generalizability is applying the skill to unseen material. As this often separates experts from novices, not surprisingly it’s also the hardest to learn. Use the following methods when training your skill to increase generalizability:
  • Variability of practice (aka varied vs. fixed practice) involves training under different environments as well varying the task in small ways. As an example, the authors cited a case with bean bag tossing. Two groups tested on how well they hit the target at a fixed distance. One group practiced throwing from two different distances, distinct from the test case. The other group simply trained at the test distance. You might expect the latter group to do better since they had more time at the test conditions. But the former group had better performance. Why? The first group learned how to self-correct better than the latter group since they had to adjust for different distances where the second group just focused on a fixed distance.
  • Seeding is where one uses representative samples to reflect an entire group and is able to make inferences just based on those samples. While picking these representatives is hard, knowing they exist leads one to look for them.
  • Rule generation is a rare method that positively impacts all 3 pillars. It is also what most experts do implicitly. Rather than remembering facts, generating rules involves pattern identification and recognition. Knowing the rule allows one to generate the appropriate output for any given input. Usually, this comes from extensive practice but can be jump started if you know to look for patterns.
In addition to the above, the authors recommend setting up a training schedule with the following three elements:
  • Better to practice periodically than in one massed session so cramming is not a good idea.
  • Find ways to reward yourself to keep up your motivation.
  • Record your progress to create a positive feedback loop.

Takeaways

Overall this book is a good resource. Based on science, it provides a solid foundation for how to learn skills. So, if you want an easy read with simple how tos, then this book is a start. It doesn’t answer all aspects of how to learn a skill but it’s readable and the examples are not complex. In summary, some key principles:
  • Knowledge (facts) can be acquired quickly and can be done in one learning session. As skills are the application of facts, it’s rare that it can be acquired in a single training session.
  • 3 pillars that optimize the skill performance
    • Efficiency: how to learn quickly so that you can improve your training.
    • Durability: ability to recall and apply what you have learned to improve your retention.
    • Generalizability: ability to use your skill under new situations.
  • Techniques that are good at strengthening one pillar may negatively impact another.
  • Using/creating rules to understand knowledge differentiates experts from novices and supports all 3 pillars, in particular generalizability.
  • Practicing periodically is better than having one marathon session.

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