“Practice makes perfect” is a common saying in education. However, the idea of a uniquely positive correlation between the repetition of a task and the acquistion of a skill might very well be erroneous.
According to a new study, it could actually be during the short periods of break in-between training sessions that the brain does most of its learning by consolidating newly developed connections.
To test this hypothesis, the team of researchers trained 27 participants on a motor task requiring them to type on a keyboard, as quickly and accurately as possible and with their non-dominant hand, a sequence of 5 characters. The subjects underwent 36 trials, each consisting of a 10-second practice period followed by a 10-second resting period.
Although participants did show improvement over time, a detailed analysis confirmed that the difference in performance between the beginning and the end of a practice phase was almost insignificant (online learning.) By contrast, most of the overall gains were obtained between the end of a practice session and the beginning of the following one, i.e., during a rest period (offline learning).
What is more, brain scans did detect a specific pattern of brain activity during resting phases, which the team dubbed a “neural signature of memory consolidation.” In their own words, the study evidenced “a rapid form of offline consolidation that contributes substantially to early skill learning. These results support the idea that the brain opportunistically consolidates previous memories whenever it is not actively learning, and they extend the concept of consolidation to a time scale on the order of seconds, rather than the hours or days traditionally accepted.”
These findings could have important applications in education, starting with the integration of frequent micro-breaks during class--a promising, inexpensive, and literally effortless way to enhance learning.
Reference: Boenstrup, Iturrate, Thompson, Cruciani, Censor, and Cohen (2019), “A Rapid Form of Offline Consolidation in Skill Learning”, Current Biology.