For decades as a child, instructors, parents, and teachers alike have reiterated the statement "practice makes perfect." However, new research has discovered that embracing a "practice makes perfect" approach may actually obstruct an individual's progress.

Researchers Soren Ashley and Joel Pearson, from the University of New South Wales, found that taking well-deserved breaks in between practice sessions is more effective than working nonstop.

When learning a new skill the brain is rewired, which is commonly called plasticity. In order for a new skill to exist, the brain changes must be stabilized and consolidated from short-term memory to long-term memory.  

“If the information and/or neural changes are not adequately consolidated, then learning will be temporary or not occur at all,” the researchers say. The study included 31 students who were recruited to learn a difficult computer task. Students were instructed to track groups of moving dots disguised amid visual distractions on the screen. Participants were divided into three groups, each of which were asked to learn the task in different ways.

During the first day of the task the control group spent one hour of training. The second group practiced nonstop for two hours. The third group trained for two hours but had a one hour break in between sessions where participants were allowed to engage in any activity other than sleep.

The following day, researchers observed that the control group became more proficient at the task compared to the nonstop practice group despite spending less time training. The group that was allocated time in between for activities also was more proficient at the task.

Additionally, Ashley and Pearson found that an insufficient amount of sleep can interfere with the consolidation process. Training for a second skill before completely allowing the first one to properly sink in, can impede the consolidation process as well.

“Many studies have shown that you don’t learn if you don’t sleep after a day of training,” Pearson said. “Likewise, overtraining can reduce learning if you don’t allow time for consolidation.”

The study was published in the Proceedings of The Royal Society B