Growing up, I was often instructed to study from the same place, at the same time for the best outcome. It was implied that predictability in the environment and the schedule was key to diminishing any distractions.

Even at 12, the process of studying felt like solving the same puzzle, just with different pieces. Routines and rules overpowered the value of variability in learning. 

While repetition helps build the learning muscle, I wonder if we undervalue the need for variability. Variability in learning is the presence of ever-changing stimuli that makes each learning experience unique. We engage in learning to enhance, refine, or acquire a skill. While we practice any skill, our environments are ever-changing.

I learned to code because I wanted to make insightful decisions. My peer is learning to code today because she loves building websites. Every learning encounter caters to diverse requirements and occurs in distinct settings.

The presence of variables in learning improves generalization. For example, if a child is exposed to a ‘rose’, she remembers it as a ‘rose’. As she is exposed to more variables i.e. different flowers, she is going to learn to generalize that a rose, lotus, and sunflower have similar properties that make them a flower. 

Research rephrases the process of generalizing with variables to learning a sport. For example, as you learn to play tennis, if you practice the same tennis serve, from the same court and same side of the court, you are mastering that distinct serve. But if you move around the court and practice different serves, this improves your ability to perform under unknown circumstances. As you increase the variables, you learn to perform under variable circumstances. 

According to research, there are four types of variability: 

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1. Numerosity

Numerosity is changing the learning set size. Increasing numerosity would increase the number of locations from where a player serves from. 

2. Heterogeneity

Heterogeneity is changing the number of learning variables in the practice. For example, practicing different serves from the same location. 

3. Situational

Situational changes would mean that a player practices from courts that have different colors, not just the anticipated one which is green. 

4. Scheduling

Schedule changes would mean that a player practices different serves in a different order over time. 

While research spans four types of variability, most studies focus on tackling one and how it impacts learning. A key finding is that interleaved (mix and match topics and subjects) along with spaced training has shown the most impact on learning.  

How can we embrace variability in learning in our daily lives:

  • Make it your own: Research on variability has pointed out that there is no one way to learn. You can change your learning schedules, and learning spaces to suit your needs. Every few weeks, change your learning space and work with a peer on a certain topic. Variability brings energy to your learning experiences. 
  • Keep track: Take a pause and reflect on your variability. If you change the location and schedule every day, it might be just another exhausting task to keep a track of. Set a routine, change it every few weeks, and then start over. 
  • Learn with others: One of my key takeaways from this research is the power of community. Our peers add value to the experiences. My peers ask the right questions and push me out of the box when things get a little too comfortable. 
  • Follow the Mr. Miyagi Principle: Research on variability pointed me to Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid. In the movie, Mr. Miyagi begins martial arts instructions by having Daniel wash and wax cars. The chores, as boring as they were, taught Daniel to master blocking punches. Washing cars, waxing them, painting houses, and so on helped Daniel build muscle memory. This principle teaches us the value of adjacent skills and how to embrace the milestones in skill building. Here’s a clip from the movie when Mr. Miyagi explains the value of variability and how waxing the cars, painting the house is important for Martial Arts.

The value of variability depends on the stage of learning. Beginners benefit from fewer variables until they build muscle memory. The idea is to ‘start small’ and build up to benefit from variables. 

Unlearning Thought

Change in the environment is fuel for the brain and yet we diminish the value of the stimulus.