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Blog Glob: "Less Pain for Learning Gain: Research offers a strategy to increase learning with less effort"

Posted Sep 23 2010 12:00am

News release from Northwestern University :

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Scientists long have recognized that many perceptual skills important for language comprehension and reading can be enhanced through practice. Now research from Northwestern University suggests a new way of training that could reduce by at least half the effort previously thought necessary to make learning gains.

The research also may be the first behavioral demonstration of metaplasticity -- the idea that experiences that on their own do not generate learning can influence how effective later experiences are at generating learning.

“Prior to our work much of the research into perceptual learning could be summed up as ‘no pain, no gain,’” says Beverly Wright , first author of a study in the Sept. 22 Journal of Neuroscience and professor of communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern. “Our work suggests that you can have the same gain in learning with substantially less pain.”

The findings could lead to less effortful therapies for children who suffer from language learning impairments involving perceptual skills. And they hold potential for members of the general population with an interest in enhancing perceptual abilities -- for musicians seeking to sharpen their sensitivity to sound, people studying a second language or physicians learning to tell the difference between regular and irregular heartbeats.

Previous research showed that individuals become better at many perceptual tasks by performing them again and again, typically making the training tedious and long in length. It also showed that mere exposure to the perceptual stimuli used during practice on these tasks does not generate learning.

But the Northwestern researchers found that robust learning occurred when they combined periods of practice that alone were too brief to cause learning with periods of mere exposure to perceptual stimuli. “To our surprise, we found that two ‘wrongs’ actually can make a

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