It seems like I’m always pushing my kids slightly outside their comfort zone, and trying to get them to do something new. So recently, I figured it might be good for me to model some of this myself by taking up a new sport.

The experience has given me a lot more empathy for what my kids must go through. Because I had completely forgotten what it feels like to be a beginner, with the constant confuzzlement and overwhelm that comes with learning something totally foreign.

And a lot of it has reminded me of what it felt like to study music too.

There’s a lot of technique involved, and a ton of details to keep in mind – from the fundamental basics to the subtle and nuanced. Sure, you can slow some things down and work on them in isolation, but ultimately, you have to be able to put everything together into a fluid sequence.

Unsurprisingly, all my old learning habits from music kicked in too. Like my tendency to want to do things perfectly, at the highest level, right from the beginning. After all, “practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect,” right?

But then I see some of the other newbies going through the same skills with somewhat less attention to detail, clearly not as worried about messing up little things here and there. And not only do their movements look more fluid, but they seem to retain more of what we’re learning from one week to the next too.

So at the end of the day, which is the most efficient way to learn? Is my “perfect practice” approach the right way? Or is it better to take the “imperfect” approach in the early stages of learning?

Learning how to throw

A team of researchers at the The University of Hong Kong recruited 216 third to fifth grade students1 to participate in a 5-week training program.

Everyone started out with a test of throwing accuracy and form, where they were asked to throw 10 beanbags as accurately as possible at a life-size picture of their PE teacher holding a softball inside a baseball mitt. They stood 5 meters away, and were to aim for the softball inside the catcher’s mitt.

Over the course of the next few weeks, the students received a weekly 15-minute practice session, where they practiced throwing beanbags at a square target taped on the wall, again from 5 meters away.

One group of students (the error-reduced or “imperfect practice” group) threw towards a large, easy target area in week one (2.4m x 2.4m), a medium-sized target in week two (1.1m x 1.1m), and a small target in week three (.45m x .45m).

Another group of students (the error-strewn or “perfect practice” group) went in the reverse order, throwing at the small difficult target in week one, the medium target in week two, and the large target in week three.

And then a week later, they were tested on their throwing accuracy and form once again, just like they were at the beginning of the study.

Two measures of improvement

The students’ improvement from week 1 to week 5 were measured in two ways.

To measure accuracy, the researchers calculated the distance from where the beanbag hit the wall, to the center of the target.

And to evaluate throwing form and technique, one of the researchers (a physiotherapist), and three trained evaluators viewed videotape of each student’s throws to establish a movement form score from 0-8, based on the movement of their a) arm/hand, b) hips/shoulders, c) feet, and d) trunk.

So which sequence of practice led to better performance on the test?

Easy to challenging vs. challenging to easy

In terms of accuracy, the error-reduced group (i.e. where they progressed from easy to more challenging standards over the course of training) made significant strides in accuracy from the beginning of training to the end. On the contrary, there wasn’t a significant improvement in performance for the error-strewn  (i.e. perfect practice) group.

This was reflected in their throwing form too, as children in the error-reduced practice group showed greater improvements in throwing form than those in the error-strewn group.

Why?

There are several reasons why starting off with more forgiving standards and progressively raising the bar may have resulted in greater learning and performance.

One possibility is that by making the task easier to succeed at in the early stages of learning, it freed the students up to just throw. And avoid that tendency to get overly analytical or concerned about “perfect” execution, which can lock us up and constrain the explorative process of figuring out the best way to perform a skill.

It’s possible that confidence may have played a role too. After all, there’s nothing that squashes confidence like being totally inept at something on Day 1. So having more early successes may have kept students engaged in learning and trying to improve on each week’s performance. Which seems reasonable, given that the students who had the worst pre-test throwing scores seemed to benefit most from the error-reduced training.

Takeaways

At some point, it’s essential to be a nerd, delve into the details, and develop a deep understanding of the underlying mechanics of a skill. So in the long run, maybe things balance out a bit.

But as I reflect back on most learning experiences I’ve had, my teachers have generally tried to get me to master the gist of a new skill first, even if the results weren’t perfect, and then over time, address the finer details and nuances of the skill.

I was rather resistant to this approach, thinking it was being too permissive of sloppiness or imperfection. But studies like this one suggest that perhaps they were right. That instead of trying to achieve an expert level of perfection right from the beginning, perhaps it’s more effective to lower the bar, get the basics down, and then refine, refine, refine to a progressively higher standard once the basic foundations of a skill are locked in.

Footnotes

  1. 9 PE classes at an international school