When you are learning new skills it makes sense that you learn one before you learn the next, but I find this is rarely how we do things in practice. As a figure skater I was always learning multiple skills: jumps, spins, field moves, and edges were all part of lessons and practice sessions. Learning an instrument was the same, or at least learning a wind instrument was. As it turns out, learning more than one skill at a time might actually have some benefits.
When you are learning a skill you are storing your new knowledge in your short term memory. If you only focus on that skill the knowledge stays in your short term memory. As a consequence, you can learn the skill but it doesn’t necessarily stick. When you take a break and come back to it you will have trouble remembering what you learned.
But, if you work to learn two skills, the knowledge of each has to be moved from short term to long term memory more often. As a result, the information is available for recall later. This means that it takes longer to learn but the learning is more effective.
As very young children we have to learn many things all at once. No kid is going to think, oh, once I have mastered the art of walking then I will learn how to talk. Throughout k-12 schooling we learn multiple subjects in school. Some university or college programs maintain this. But then we are taught that we shouldn’t do that, we must learn one skill and then the next. No wonder adults seem to have more difficulty in learning new things. We ignore our entire history of learning more than one thing at a time and tell ourselves that we must focus.
Would adults be better learners if we tried to do more than we “should”?
Update: This relates to the study strategy of interleaving which recommends that you switch between ideas while you study and make links between the different ideas as you go. I’ve often been accused on not focusing when I jump between ideas but it turns out that this is a much more effective study strategy than studying one thing at a time. To learn more about interleaving check out this site by The Learning Scientists.
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