Don’t Just Learn a Skill. Test it.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on January 21st, 2011

Taking a test is not just a passive mechanism for assessing how much people know. Test-taking works better than many study techniques to accelerate learning according to To Really Learn, Take a Test in today’s NY Times. Education writer Pam Belluck  reports that students who read a passage, then took a test of their recall retained 50 percent more  a week later than those using other study methods. They also had a more accurate sense of how well they’d recall what they learned.

Students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week later. Those who were tested predicted they would remember less, but in fact remembered more. Students who weren’t tested were overconfident of their capacity for recall, but retained less.

This is because students who take tests are more likely to recognize gaps in their knowledge. This leads them to critically examine what they think they’ve learned.  This helps them “retrieve and organize the knowledge  in a way that makes sense,” according to Marcia Linn, aUC Berkeley education professor.

This insight into learning mirrors a behavior common among those who achieve excellence or Mastery. Anders Ericsson Ph.D., the world’s most respected authority on Expertise and Excellent Performance has written that Overachievers practice differently from Average Achievers. They do Deliberate Practice. Three key attributes of Deliberate Practice are:

  • Tirelessly reach for objectives just beyond your current comfort level.
  • Focus on finding weak spots, then develop strategies for improving them.
  • Create feedback loops to measure progress.

How to make your Swimming Practice Deliberate
At the end of any extended session practicing a particular skill level, regularly test that skill on a level of difficulty that’s slightly beyond your ‘Competence Zone.’

If you’ve been practicing a drill series, take the new skill or sensation for a ‘test drive’ in whole stroke.

If you’ve been practicing 25-yard reps of a Focal Point or SPL, do one or two 50-yard reps to learn what happens with an extra lap.

If you’ve been honing your stroke count — or sense of leisure — at a tempo of 1.30,  push the tempo to 1.25, or even 1.20 before quitting.

2 Responses to “Don’t Just Learn a Skill. Test it.”

  1. Jared Hawes says:

    This morning I helped a good friend who is training for an ironman triathlon and we unknowingly put this concept into our practice. We had been working on “swimming taller” stretching the lead arm and gliding for as long as possible on each stroke.

    After the drilling, we went back to some whole stroke swimming I had him use my tempo trainer and instructed him to then attempt maintaining his stoke count on 50m repeats while dropping his stroke rate (-0.02 per stroke) from 1.40 to 1.30 sec/stroke. His comfortable 22 SPL dropped to 21 through that set of 5 x 50. We were both happy with those results, but after a quick chat he wanted to try one more set. With the same goal of a long relaxed stroke he continued to descend from 1.30 swimming 3 more 50’s, this time dropping 0.03, 0.03 and 0.04 per 50 to finish at 1.20sec.stroke. On the last 50 I stayed at the end and counted his strokes, 20 & 19! His lowest SPL to date, and a great improvement in just 400 focused meters.

  2. Jared
    Thanks for sharing this. Your anecdote illustrates two ‘common-sense’ principles of swimming improvement.
    (1) Tests really are beneficial. In your friend’s case, if you and he hadn’t decided to ‘push’ the tempo in a measured way, he might not have discovered that his stroke efficiency actually improves has his tempo speeds up. That gives a clear indicator that he probably has a tempo “Sweet Spot” in that range between 1.30 and 1.20.
    (2) Practice planning can be guided in a pretty straightforward and empirical way by measuring the right things. Most aerobic training is a combination of ‘leap of faith’ and ‘guesswork.’ The set example you give here is pure math.

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