You may have been told that practice makes perfect but according to Fordham Professor Mitchell Rabinowitz, Ph.D., it’s how you organize practice that really makes a difference. “There are two different kinds of knowledge: There is knowing how to figure something out and then there is simply knowing the answer,” said Rabinowitz, who teaches in the Division of Psychological and Educational Services in Fordham’s Graduate School of Education. “By organizing practice differently, you can either acquire procedural or retrievable skills, which are useful in different situations.” According to Rabinowitz, educators and trainers need to consider alternative structures of practice so they can properly match the skill that is being acquired with different task demands.
For most complex skills, it takes many years of on-the-job training to gain mastery and there is very often a need to reduce this amount of time. This is particularly important now, when the different branches of the armed forces are quickly training for combat. Each year, reservists train for one weekend per month and two weeks during the summer. When the time comes for active duty, there is only enough time for a refresher-training period. By seeking out the most effective and streamlined modes of practice, more can be made of these short training periods, allowing troops to be deployed quicker and better prepared for their respective tasks.
“If you don’t look carefully at how you want knowledge ultimately to be used, you might actually be acquiring the wrong types of knowledge for your needs,” said Rabinowitz. To study the effectiveness of different approaches to practice, Rabinowitz has used a number of experimental tasks. In one study, two groups of subjects were introduced to alphabet arithmetic (i.e., L plus five equals Q), a skill with which few people are familiar. Group one practiced 72 problems six times and group two practiced 12 problems 36 times (both solving a total of 432 problems). What Rabinowitz found was that group one became better at the procedure of counting the alphabet, but did not answer quickly. Conversely, group two was faster at retrieving answers, but not as efficient at counting. Therefore, although both groups may both know that L plus five equals Q, their knowledge is completely different, allowing for the accessibility and availability of information to vary.
“You can teach many skills as a retrievable skill or a procedural skill,” said Rabinowitz. “If you are conducting a training session and you want your audience to learn both types of skills, you should start out with a context that provides you with a certain amount of retrievable knowledge, and then expand on that to encompass additional contexts, thereby developing procedural skills as well.” Rabinowitz’s research has appeared in Memory, Performance and Competencies: Issues in Growth and Development (Erlbaum 1995). It will also be featured in Representation, Memory and Development, scheduled for publication by Erlbaum in early 2002.