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By: Paul Dexter, Director of Academic Retention Initiatives

Think about one of your skills. It may be associated with a hobby, a passion, or professional talent. It could be anything: guitar, basketball, media production, writing, speaking multiple languages. Now, think about how much time and effort it took to build that skill, even if you had some initial “natural talent”. Essentially, we learn and develop skills through PRACTICE. “Practice” involves:

  • Action: While watching and listening introduces information into the brain, it is the DOING that moves the learning process forward. Consider the skill you listed above: would you have that skill if all you did was watch and listen?
  • Repetition: Information must be “worked” more than once for it to form a neuropathway in the brain. In other words, repetition creates memory.
  • Feedback: Many people do not seek out suggestions or constructive criticism from others. It is this information, though, that allows a person to go to the next level of performance or understanding, to get “unstuck” or overcome obstacles.
  • Reflection: When attempting to learn, repeatedly checking for understanding and competence is a vital part of the process. Ask questions along the way such as, “How am I doing? What is it I know and can do well? What am I finding to be challenging, or do not know?”

College students need to be able to learn several subjects, concepts, or skills in the same semester. While there is a significant time management component to learning, the following guidelines will help you make the most of your practice time.

Single Tasking. This first step helps to set the conditions for effective practice. A common learning trap is the notion of multitasking, trying to complete two cognitive tasks simultaneously. Think back to the skill you had in mind earlier. If attempting to focus on something else while “practicing” that skill, how effective would that be? Single tasking entails removing distractions, committing to pay full attention, and actively trying to connect this new information to what the brain already has understood, experienced, or remembered.

An approach that can assist with single-tasking is the Pomodoro Technique. This time management strategy was developed decades ago by a university student and can help with managing distractions. To use this approach, set a timer for 25 minutes to focus on one task. Once the timer begins, ignore the urge to check your phone, email or do any other distracting activity. When the timer goes off, take a short 5 minute break before committing to another 25 minutes.

Spaced Practice. “Spaced” refers to the frequency of the practice, the “when”. It means practicing more than once during the week, and allowing space in between the practice sessions. Once a week is not enough to build a skill, and trying to cram in lots of practice in one day results in fatigue, not productivity. Spaced practice takes finding several shorter times throughout your week, such as 60 minutes on Sunday, 30 minutes on Tuesday, and 30 minutes on Friday. This “multiple-swipe” approach builds memory, understanding, and skill far more quickly, and creates “durable learning”, learning that will last over time.

Retrieval Practice. While spaced practice is about the “when”, retrieval is more about the “what”: the content. Retrieval practice involves intentionally trying to “go get” relevant information in our brain to apply in the present. Each time we retrieve, our memory of the information becomes stronger. For example, instead of just reviewing concepts from the most recent week of class, ask yourself, “What information or concepts from earlier in the class are related to this, and can I remember and explain those concepts?” Try to retrieve the information from memory at first, and then use your resources (class notes, text books, websites) to fill in the rest.

Interleaving. This aspect of practice is more about the “how”. Interleaving entails mixing up the kinds of problems, equations, or scenarios during your practice session. Interleaving assists with retrieval, and also helps to avoid the trap of familiarity. For example, if the learner does 10 of the same kinds of problems during one study session, he or she becomes comfortable with the process, and the familiarity sends the message, “I know this stuff.” Interleaving different kinds of problems (like shuffling a deck of flashcards) forces the brain to consider context: “which rule or procedure to I use in this situation?”

More resources and strategies available at, including last week’s article on Managing Your Learning Environment.
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