Repetition: The Mother of Learning

When it comes to learning any skill or lesson, there is much to be debated about which method would achieve the most desired approach. Edward Lee Thorndike, the noted American psychologist responsible for laying the framework for modern educational psychology had many theories and one I find to be particularly effective and valid. According to his S-R Bond Theory, drill or practice helps in increasing efficiency and durability of learning. Essentially, in laymen’s terms, practice makes perfect. Now I would not promote any human effort as being perfect, yet the act of consistent repetition does increase skill level dramatically over time.

As a trained martial artist, I am reminded of a lesson my old Master taught years ago that still resounds with me today. One evening while practicing a certain series of movements, he became quite frustrated at the constant mistakes that the entire class kept repeating. He sat us down and told us about when he first began learning martial arts in China back in the fifties. As an American who spoke only English, the barrier to learning was as high as the Great Wall of China itself. He explained that since he could not effectively communicate orally with his teacher, the only way was to observe the movements and repeat what he was shown. Of course, this was a different culture and time in history which included being stuck with a bamboo stick when the example was not followed. I am not saying that I agree or disagree with this harsh style, but my teacher did make a very good point about the learning through observation and repetition. At first, he was clumsy and got “punished” frequently. However, over time his skill improved just by doing the same proper technique over and over. He got struck with a weapon less often and the movement began to become natural to him. Eventually, he didn’t even have to think at all about what he was doing, the movements became as natural to him as driving a car or tying his shoe. Given that he was learning combat skills, the ability to act in a moments notice without having to think was imperative to survival. Most new undertakings don’t have the same possible life or death consequences but the principle in the learning style rings true.

When I was 17 and traded my first car to someone for his but forgot that his was a five speed manual transmission. He dropped it off and we signed the title, yet I forgot that I had no idea how to drive it. In my enthusiasm for a “new” car, this major detail escaped my rational thought process. Fortunately for me, my mother learned to drive on an old stick shift Mustang and could teach me how. If you have ever learned this useful but somewhat archaic skill, the beginning is the “grind em until you find em” stage. The miracle is the fact that the transmission didn’t fall out from the jerking and grinding of metal gears for many painful hours. My mom probably still has a slight headache all these years later. However, eventually from repetition and consistent practice, the ability has now become as unconscious to me as breathing. I still drive a stick shift to this day and it is effortless and comes without the headache for my fellow passengers.

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I believe that Dr. Thorndike was correct when he proposed, tested, and submitted this theory on educational psychology. Inversely, he also states that what is not repeated tends to dissipate. Returning to my martial arts training is a perfect example. I spent many years practicing the movements that my teacher taught me, but due ti injury and changing life responsibilities, practice reduced until it ended all together. I know that if I returned to the school, some ability would still be there, but just as an axe that isn’t sharpened, so is a martial artist without practice. If one doesn’t use it, he loses it. Perhaps not completely, but to a large degree with the passing of time. To improve, one must wash, rinse, and repeat regularly or risk deterioration

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