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How We Really Learn: Why We Need More Practice, Not More Information

two medical students looking at prosthetic while one sits and takes notes

In the realm of learning, there has long been a debate over the best way to acquire knowledge and skills. Traditionally, the focus has been on information delivery—think lectures, textbooks, and online articles. But as we dive deeper into understanding how the human brain works, it's becoming clear that having information is not the same as understanding it or being able to use it effectively. This guide explores why shifting our focus from merely absorbing information to actively practicing can dramatically enhance how we learn.

Practice vs Information in Learning

To start, let's define what we mean by practice-based learning versus information-based learning. Information-based learning is often passive. It involves reading, watching, or listening to someone impart knowledge. This method can fill your brain with facts, but it often fails to engage deeper cognitive processes that solidify and integrate this knowledge into practical use. In contrast, practice-based learning is active. It requires the learner to use the information, apply it in various contexts, or solve problems using the knowledge. This active engagement helps forge stronger neural connections, making the information more accessible and useful in real-life situations.

Cognitive science supports this approach by showing that learning is most effective when it is active. When learners interact with information, whether by discussing it, teaching it to others, or applying it in a practical task, they are far more likely to remember it and understand it deeply. For example, a student might memorize a mathematical formula and know it well enough to pass a test, but using that formula to solve complex, real-world problems requires a much deeper level of understanding that often only comes with practice and application.

Effective Learning Strategies: Practice vs Information

Given the limitations of passive learning, it's important to explore more effective learning strategies that emphasize practice over mere information gathering. One powerful approach is retrieval practice, which involves recalling information from memory. This strategy transforms the learning process from a passive intake of information to an active recall challenge, which strengthens memory and learning.

Another effective strategy is spaced repetition, where information is reviewed at increasing intervals to reinforce the initial learning. This technique is particularly powerful when combined with active recall, as it forces the brain to work harder to retrieve the information each time, embedding it more deeply.

Applied problem-solving is yet another approach where learners tackle real or simulated problems using the information they've learned. This not only helps solidify knowledge but also improves their ability to transfer and apply knowledge in different contexts. For instance, a medical student might learn about various diseases in a textbook but getting hands-on practice through clinical simulations or real-world internships will significantly enhance their ability to diagnose and treat patients effectively.

Practical Learning

Moving into the realm of practical learning, we see how crucial it is for both academic and professional success. Practical learning involves applying theoretical knowledge to real-world tasks, which not only reinforces learning but also provides insight into the practical implications and applications of what one has learned. In educational settings, incorporating practical learning can make the learning process more engaging and relevant to students, who often struggle to see the value of abstract concepts without seeing their real-world applications.

For example, engineering students benefit greatly from hands-on projects where they can design, build, and test structures or systems themselves. This not only helps them understand engineering principles more deeply but also prepares them for the kind of work they will be doing in their careers. Similarly, in business education, case studies and real-world problem-solving assignments help students develop critical thinking and decision-making skills that are crucial for their professional lives.

This shift towards an emphasis on practical and practice-based learning strategies is not just a minor adjustment but a fundamental change in how we approach education and training. By focusing more on how students can use and apply information, rather than just absorb it, we equip them with the skills they need to succeed in complex, real-world environments.

Practice-Based Learning

Practice-based learning represents a profound shift in the educational paradigm, where the emphasis is on learning by doing. This method leverages active engagement with the material, challenging students and professionals to apply their knowledge practically and iteratively, which not only reinforces their learning but also fosters a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

One of the core principles of practice-based learning is that making mistakes is part of the learning process. In this model, errors are not seen as failures but as opportunities for growth and understanding. This approach encourages learners to experiment and explore, which enhances their creative problem-solving skills. For instance, in a programming course, rather than solely lecturing about coding practices, instructors can encourage students to write code, debug errors, and refine their programs. This hands-on experience with coding not only helps students understand programming concepts better but also prepares them for real-world software development by teaching them how to troubleshoot and solve problems on their own.

Additionally, practice-based learning often involves collaborative projects that require teamwork, communication, and negotiation skills—abilities that are crucial in most professional settings but are rarely the focus in traditional educational models. This collaborative aspect of practice-based learning not only makes the learning process more interactive but also mimics the dynamics of professional environments, making the transition from classroom to workplace smoother and more natural.

Challenges and Solutions in Implementing Practice-Based Learning

While the benefits of practice-based learning are clear, implementing this approach can present challenges, especially in traditional educational environments accustomed to lecture-based teaching methods. One major challenge is the resource-intensive nature of this learning approach. Hands-on learning often requires more materials, space, and potentially smaller class sizes, which can be a logistical and financial hurdle for many institutions.

Another challenge is the need for educators who are not only knowledgeable in their subjects but also skilled in guiding experiential learning. This might require additional training for instructors, which could be a barrier in environments where time and resources are already stretched thin.

Despite these challenges, solutions exist that can help integrate practice-based learning into more traditional settings. For instance, technology can play a crucial role. Virtual simulations and online platforms can offer interactive, practice-based experiences without the need for extensive physical resources. These tools can simulate everything from laboratory experiments in chemistry to social interactions in psychology, providing valuable hands-on experience in a more accessible format.

Furthermore, partnerships between educational institutions and local businesses or community organizations can provide practical learning opportunities for students. These partnerships can offer internships, project-based learning initiatives, and other real-world experiences that complement classroom learning, thereby enhancing the overall educational experience without overwhelming school resources.

The Broader Impact of Practice-Based Learning on Education

The shift towards practice-based learning has broader implications for the educational landscape. By focusing more on how knowledge can be applied, this approach helps bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application, a divide that has often been criticized in traditional education systems.

This model not only prepares students better for the workforce but also ignites a lifelong love for learning by making education more relevant and engaging. Students are more likely to be motivated and interested when they see the real-world applications of their studies and are actively involved in their education.

Moreover, as education systems around the world begin to embrace more holistic approaches to learning that value creativity, critical thinking, and adaptability, practice-based learning becomes increasingly important. It supports the development of these essential skills, which are crucial for navigating the complex, rapidly changing world we live in.

By incorporating more practice-based learning into educational curriculums, we not only enhance the learning experience but also equip students with the tools they need to succeed professionally and personally in the long term. This approach makes learning more dynamic and directly connected to the practicalities and challenges of real life, encouraging students to become active, engaged participants in their own education and future.

Monitoring and Adapting Practice-Based Learning Approaches

A man and woman in front of a white board discussing something while they both stare at it

Ensuring that practice-based learning remains effective and relevant requires continuous monitoring and adaptation. Educators and institutions need to actively gather feedback from students and assess the outcomes of their learning experiences. This evaluation can help identify what's working well and what might need adjustment. For instance, student feedback can provide insights into how engaging and useful they find hands-on projects or collaborative assignments, while performance assessments can measure the actual learning outcomes against expected benchmarks.

Adaptation based on this feedback is crucial. It may involve tweaking project parameters, adjusting support structures, or even rethinking the approach to certain topics. For example, if students are consistently struggling with a particular concept or project, it might be necessary to introduce more foundational lessons before moving on to complex applications, or perhaps integrate more support resources such as tutorials or peer-assisted learning sessions.

Future Directions in Practice-Based Learning

Looking forward, the expansion of practice-based learning could reshape educational landscapes in profound ways. As technology continues to evolve, so too do the opportunities for creating more immersive and interactive learning environments. Augmented and virtual reality tools could further enhance practice-based learning, allowing students to explore and interact with complex systems or environments in a virtual space. These technologies have the potential to make experiential learning even more accessible and varied, providing students with experiences that were previously out of reach due to logistical or financial constraints.

Additionally, as the global job market continues to evolve, the demand for workers who are not only knowledgeable but also adept at applying their knowledge in diverse and dynamic ways will increase. Practice-based learning is ideally suited to meet this demand, as it focuses on developing adaptable, critical thinkers who are prepared to tackle real-world challenges.


In conclusion, the shift toward more practice, rather than merely accumulating information, marks a significant evolution in how we approach learning. This practice-based learning not only deepens understanding but also enhances the ability to apply knowledge in real-world situations, a crucial skill in today's ever-changing landscape.

For educators, integrating more practice-based methods into curriculums isn't just beneficial; it's necessary to prepare students for the complexities of modern professional environments. For students and lifelong learners, engaging actively with material rather than passively consuming information can accelerate personal growth and improve problem-solving capabilities.

If you're an educator, consider reviewing and revising your teaching strategies to incorporate more practical applications. If you're a learner, seek out opportunities to apply what you're studying in real-world scenarios. Embrace the challenges these opportunities present, and remember, the goal is to learn and adapt, not just to know. Let’s move beyond the classroom's traditional boundaries and into a more dynamic and effective future of learning. Why not take the first step today? The benefits of engaging directly with what you learn await!


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