The traditional adage is that practice makes perfect, but recent research has found that’s not always the case. We now know that intelligence, confidence, and natural ability, as well as environmental factors like support, can always play a role in the development of a skill.

A new study out of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, however, says that practice can still have a huge influence on the development of skills — especially if you change up the way you practice and learn. In other words, practicing the same thing over and over again won’t always make it stick better.

“What we found is if you practice a slightly modified version of a task you want to master, you actually learn more and faster than if you just keep practicing the exact same thing multiple times in a row,” Dr. Pablo Celnik, a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in the press release.

Reconsolidation In Learning New Tasks

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, examined 86 healthy volunteers as they learned a computer-based motor skill using an isometric pinch task. The participants were divided into three groups: The first group repeated the same training session twice, the second group was given a modified practice session the second time around, and the third control group was only given one training session per day.

Those who adjusted quickly to the change in the second group were more effective in performing the original task the next time. In fact, the results showed that participants in the second group showed accuracy and speediness that was double the amount in the first group. The ability to perform better after modified practice has to do with reconsolidation — when the brain recalls memories then amplifies them with new knowledge and memories.

It’s reconsolidation that helps strengthen motor skills, the researchers state. And reconsolidation can be beneficial for people learning new skills in sports or music, but perhaps more importantly, it can help stroke and other neurologically-impaired patients regain motor function.

But here’s the catch: the “modified” practice sessions should only be subtly different, Celnik argues. Changing the size of a tennis racket, or a slight alteration in piano notes, for example, could make all the difference — while larger changes may bring no benefits. That being said, practice does remain important, even if it's repetitive; many researchers argue that it surpasses innate ability in making people good at things.

“Our results are important because little was known before about how reconsolidating works in relation to motor skill development,” Celnik said in the press release. “This shows how simple manipulations during training can lead to more rapid and larger motor skill gains because of reconsolidation. The goal is to develop novel behavioral interventions and training schedules that give people more improvement for the same amount of practice time.”

Source: Celnik P, et al. Current Biology, 2016.