Anyone who has tried to learn a new language knows, remembering the details is not easy. In fact, remembering anything new is not a walk in the park, and becomes harder as we age. The traditional method of learning has been repetition - practice makes perfect, as many would say. However, a 2016 study from Johns Hopkins University Researchers revealed that simply repeating the same task over and over again, may not be ideal. According to their research, varying the practice routine slightly may actually double the speed at which you learn!
This technique is based on what psychologists call, "Reconsolidation." In basic terms, it is the process in which memories are recalled and modified with new knowledge. This process plays a pivotal role in strengthening skills and learning. Dr. Pablo A. Celnik at Johns Hopkins and his colleagues found that “if you perform 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.”
What does this mean for academics and academic competitions? Well, first of all we have to understand that the Johns Hopkins research was specifically about learning motor skills. The study they performed was about how well a group of 86 volunteers were able to learn a simple computer based-motor skill task. Dr. Celnik goes on to extrapolate that using the modified practice routine could lead to improved performance on any motor-skill based tasks. So while the Johns Hopkins study does not explicitly address the learning or improving of academic skills, based on what we know about memory reconsolidation, there is no reason that the study's results would not also hold true for the learning and remembering of academic skills.
As with every research study, and scientific topic, more research is of course needed. We need to see research specifically related to academic skills. We need to see research that can better quantify the amount of change in practice routines that is best. We need to see bigger studies with a wider variety of subjects. There is much more to learn about reconsolidation of memories and the potential impact that modified practice routines can have on learning, but there is no reason to think that the current results would not also extend to the academic realm.
So, one thing we can say for sure is that, it cannot hurt. Based on the Johns Hopkins study, there is reason to believe that slightly modifying practice routines can lead to significant benefits in the development of skills - academic or otherwise. If you're coaching an academic team, think about modifying your students' practice sessions using small modifications each time. The Johns Hopkins study also noted that completely changing the practice structure did little to improve results over the norm. So the key is slight changes to the practice routine will help increase memory reconsolidation over time.
If you're practicing spelling for the Spelling Bee using flashcards, make sure to change the order in which you show the words. If you are practicing questions for the Quiz Bowl, try having multiple questions on the same topic that are slightly varied in how it is asked. Your students will thank you, not only for improving the skills they can gain, but for making practice a little more fun and engaging!