Academic Gains through Improved Learning Effectiveness (AGILE)

Person practicing guitar.

Practice, Practice, Practice!

Think about one of your skills. It may be associated with a hobby, a passion, or a professional talent. It could be anything: guitar, basketball, media production, writing, speaking multiple languages, home brewing. 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 skill through PRACTICE. 

All effective learning requires 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 competency 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 multiple subjects, concepts, or skills in the same semester. While there is a significant time management component, the following guidelines will help you make the most of your practice time.

If you're looking for more information on one specific strategy, click on the name below to jump to that portion of the page. We encourage you, however, to read all of the information below.

Spaced Practice

“Spaced’ refers to the frequency of the practice. 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 the 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.

Active vs. Diffused Learning States

Many learners focus upon the active part of learning: attending class, taking notes, reading the assigned materials, studying in groups, and doing practice problems. These all entail paying attention, and consciously trying to learn, understand, and do. There is, however, another important learning “state” of mind: diffused learning. Imagine the following:

In the moment, I’m struggling to remember something. Later, when I’m  on a long car ride, going for a run, or about to fall asleep, the answer suddenly hits me with an “Ah HAH!!!” out of nowhere.

THAT is an example of the diffused or “resting” learning state. While not ACTIVELY thinking about the concept or trying to remember, the brain continues to connect information and make meaning during times of rest and quiet. By “rest and quiet”, it does not necessarily mean laying down or meditating; rather, it refers to having time throughout the day and week designated for something other than active thinking. This is why it is so important to find balance between enough active time on task and non-studying, self-care time. Part of “practice”, then, is the intentional “off” time.

Single Tasking

A common learning trap is the notion of multitasking, which research clearly shows does not work. Think back the skill you had in mind earlier. If attempting to focus on something else while “practicing” that skill, how effective would that be? The reality is that it would waste time and effort, add to frustration, and reduce the likelihood of peak performance.

Shifting away from multi-tasking towards “single-tasking” allows the brain to focus 100% on the information. This saves time as well as maximizes the learning effort. 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 method was developed decades ago by a university student. To use this approach, set a timer for 25 minutes to focus on the one task at hand, and when the timer goes off, take a short break before committing to another 25 minutes. These short breaks can also foster the “diffused learning” state described earlier.