We are all familiar with the saying “practice makes perfect.” But new research from psychologists at the University of Sheffield in the UK suggests that when it comes to learning new skills, the way one practices is more important than the frequency of practice.

To reach their findings, published in the journal Psychological Science, the research team analyzed data from 854,064 players of an online computer game called Axon.

The computer game, in which players are required to guide a neuron to different connections by clicking potential targets, was used to test participants’ ability to move quickly, make decisions and understanding of how the game works.

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A study suggests that when it comes to learning a new skill, such as playing a musical instrument, the way one practices is more important than the amount of time spent practicing.

The researchers monitored the players’ results by inserting a tracking code into each computer. This recorded the identity of each machine every time the game was loaded and tracked participants’ scores, as well as the date and time they played the game.

The investigators wanted to determine how game practice impacted the performance of the participants.

Results revealed that among participants who played the game for the same amount of time, some players registered higher scores.

The research team say their findings suggest that individuals who were able to learn faster had spaced out their practice or had registered fluctuating results during early game performances, indicating that these participants were analyzing how the game works, leading them to perform better.

Talking to Medical News Today, Dr. Tom Stafford of the psychology department at the University of Sheffield, said:

People who were inconsistent at the beginning of play performed better later on. This was surprising, but our theory is that this inconsistency doesn’t reflect flakiness, it reflects a willingness to explore the parameters of the game. But being unafraid to fail early on, you can gain the knowledge needed to support superior performance later on.”

“If we can work out how to learn more efficiently we can learn more things, or the same things in less time. In an economy where we’re all working for longer and longer, the ability to learn across the lifespan is increasingly important,” he added.

The investigators note that collecting data from online gaming is effective in providing researchers with a new way to analyze how humans learn.

“This kind of data affords us to look in an unprecedented way at the shape of the learning curve, allowing us to explore how the way we practice helps or hinders learning,” Dr. Stafford says.

The Axon game was created by game designer Preloaded for the Wellcome Trust – a global charitable foundation that supports research into human and animal health.

Dr. Stafford says he is keen to work with game designers in order to develop future studies to determine the best way humans can learn new skills.

In other news linked to learning, a study reported by Medical News Today in October 2013 suggests that learning new skills may keep the mind sharp as we age, while another study suggests that aerobic fitness may boost memory and learning in children.