Repetition in Learning and Mastering

Learning through repetition

Information needs to be presented to a learner in at least 6 different ways to stick in his mind. Repetition rules. On the other hand, an athlete repeats the same technique thousands of times in the same way to get it to stick in his mind. Repetition rules, again. Should you learn in different ways or in the same way?

The other day I participated in the “Training from the Back of the Room” (TFTBOTR) by Sharon Bowman. Sharon told us a lot about how people learn and how we as trainers can create an environment, i.e. our classes, to help our students learn better. By the way, I highly recommend this class for every trainer. If you haven’t alreay heard of Sharon’s concept of training, it’ll be a huge kick out of your comfort zone with quite a good chance of ending up as a much better trainer than before.

One thing she taught us (and which got stuck in my mind) was this: Deliver content to your students in at least 6 different ways, because then chances are pretty high that it’ll stick in their minds.

[Update: Sharon wrote me just after I published this post and provided me with the source of the aforementioned statement. Here’s what she wrote:

I was introduced to the “6 times 6 ways” research at a Creative Training Techniques workshop many years ago. The current quotation I found is here, from author and training specialist Bob Pike in his “Creative Training Techniques Handbook” (1989; 2003 third edition, pages 278-279):

“The Law of Review and Application: We know that we must revisit content six times with a time lapse in between each revisit of content in order to move the information from short-term memory to long-term memory. The more the participants themselves are involved in revisiting the content, rather than the instructor just repeating it, the more firmly the content will be anchored in the participants’ memory.”

Thank you very much, Sharon!]

Repetition in learning is well known, e.g.

  • mere exposure effect: “[P]eople tend to develop a preference for things merely because they are familiar with them.” (Wikipedia)
  • illusion-of-truth effect: “[A] person is more likely to believe a familiar statement than an unfamiliar one.” (Wikipedia)

I’ll give an example for delivering content in at least 6 different ways. If I’d teach, that a product backlog in Scrum is ordered (see Scrum guide update 2011), I could do it like this:

  1. Picture: I show a photo of an ordered product backlog on a slide.
  2. Reading: Next to the photo I write the words “Ordered Product Backlog” and give the participants time to read them quietly.
  3. Listening: I say the words “This is an ordered product backlog.” out loud and maybe explain a few things about this artefact.
  4. Writing: I let the participants write down the words “ordered product backlog” on top of a white piece of paper.
  5. Drawing: I let the participants doodle a copy of that photo of an ordered product backlog.
  6. Teaching: I group the participants in pairs and let them explain to each other the concept of an ordered product backlog.

Sharon did the same thing with us on a different topic: In 10 minutes she taught us 5 rules to keep in mind when doing an emergency water landing with a plane. She used more than 6 different ways to introduce the content to us, and even if it’s been days after the training and the topic wasn’t that interesting to me, I still remember all of the 5 rules.

What confused me during the training was this: I know that as an athlete you do lots of training where you repeat techniques, too, but not in a different, but in the very same way. Examples are in long distance running nearly endless repetition of, well, running; in diving repetition of safety checks over and over again; in bouldering repetition of moves; and so on.

Is it better to repeat content in different ways or in the same way? The answer depends upon what you want to achieve.

  • When it comes to learning, the more ways you approach your mind with the same message, the better it’ll be stored and the better it can later be remembered.
  • When it comes to mastering, you’ve already learned the content, and now you want to refine it and get better at doing it. You want to master it, and a good way to do that is doing the same thing over and over again.

A good examples in my opinion is a code kata. When you start a code kata, the problem and the solution, both are new to you and you have to learn them. You try it the first time, and maybe you end up in a dead-end. You try it a second time with a different approach, you succeed, but you’re not satisfied. You try it a third time, again with a different approach, and you fail again, but got a new aspect of the problem’s real nature. After a while and several ways (maybe 6 or more?) of dealing with the same code kata, you learned the problem and the solution.

Now you want to fine tune the code kata. You measure the time you need to complete the code kata with the goal to decrease this time. You concentrate on using keyboard shortcuts wherever possible. You adapt your code in a way that it looks more meaningful and elegant. You do all this to master this code kata, to be really good at it.

Those are the two forms of repetition in a code kata:

  1. Learning repetition: In the beginning, try to solve the code kata in at least 6 different ways to learn problem and solution.
  2. Mastering repetition: Later on, when you learned about the code kata’s problem and its solution, repeat the code kata several times in the same way. Get better in doing so each time.

I guess that learning and mastering is a self-reinforcing process. I learn something, e.g. trail running, and then I try to master it until I reach a specific level. At that level, the energy to master running is way higher than the benefit. Eventually, I let go of that thing and turn to something else, e.g. bouldering, again learning and mastering. After a while, I recognise a change in my running, coming from bouldering. I trained muscles while bouldering which come in quite handy when I run. Now I can use these new skills to master running even further.


  • Learn new stuff in at least 6 different ways and then repeat them to master it.
  • If you teach, introduce new stuff in at least 6 different ways.
  • If you want to master stuff, repeat it often in the same way.
  • Learning and mastering is a self-reinforcing process, which means that learning one thing can boost mastering another.

Training from the Back of the Room!: 65 Ways to Step Aside and Let Them Learn
This is the book about TFTBOTR. Sharon explains the background of TFTBOTR and gives plenty of examples how to use it in your own teaching. If you have to or want to teach, read this book!

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About Bernd Schiffer

Bernd Schiffer is consultant, trainer and coach for Agile Software Development in Melbourne, Australia. Learn more about him on his personal homepage, have a look at his company Bold Mover, or contact him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, XING or LinkedIn.

8 Responses to Repetition in Learning and Mastering

  1. Bernd: You have posted an excellent summary of the difference between repetition for learning and repetition for mastery. The authors of many of my brain science resources would agree with you! Your examples of the concepts are very concrete and helpful. Thank you for your insightful blog – I will pass it along to our Agile and Scrum Ning community. Cheers to you and yours! Sharon

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  6. Gawn says:

    What if you wanted to apply that to academics? Say I wanted to learn applying a formula, how do I integrate these techniques to “master” the formula?
    And how many repetitions would it take to turn that new skill into “second nature”: where I don’t even need to think much to execute it competently??

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