Much of the last week, I was asked a specific question, how much theory should I study and how often should I put that theory into play (practice)? I was going to finish the game we’ve been analyzing this week but realized that this question might be on the minds of those reading this series of articles. Therefore, I want to give you my take on theory and practice, and how much of each to apply to your improvement.
Theory and practice translate to studying something and trying it out in the real world. Whether you’re an aspiring musician, chess player or athlete, you cannot escape the combination of theory and practice on the road to mastering your craft. Everything I have attempted to master, or at least have a strong working knowledge of, has required that I study the techniques required to achieve my goal and put those techniques into practice.
During the Pandemic, I did two things I always wanted to do but never had the time to do them, electronics, and ham radio. Ham radio requires an operator’s license which you receive after successfully passing a written test. As for the electronics, I enrolled in an eight-class certification program at the University of California (the classes were taught online). I knew next to nothing about electronics and physical computing. My classmates came into the certification program with backgrounds in both. What saved me from failure? The professor had a great system for dealing with theory and practice, and how much time should be spent on each.
There is a lot of theory in electronics which must be fully understood in order to create circuits and actual electronic devices. However, you might find yourself spending all your time trying to comprehend that theory and putting none of it into practice by making something. The professor did something similar to what I do with my students. He had us learn just enough theory to understand the basic ideas or laws that govern electronics, and then had us start building simple circuits. As we built those circuits, we understood the theory we just studied much more than had we not applied it. He would introduce further theory as we built our projects which made more sense to us because those add-ons applied to what was going on within our circuits. In short, the professor fed us theory at specific points in the circuit building process (our practice phase) so we could see the theory in action. The theory stuck within our brains and made sense because we were putting that theory into action immediately. The study of ham radio was the exact opposite!
I had to study and learn a 300-plus page book that covered everything from electronics to radio etiquette. Because you need a license to operate a ham radio, I had no chance to practice what I was learning as I went along. I simply had to memorize everything as well as know the 400-question test pool by heart. There’s a big difference between these two methods of learning. While I did well in both endeavors and ended up getting two more advanced ham radio licenses, I remember so much more about electronics than I do about ham radio. Why? Because I had a balance of theory and practice guiding my studies. How you study, and how you balance theory and practice, makes a huge difference in exactly what you retain in your memory!
I told this story to students asking me about theory and practice, encouraging them to use the method my professor had us used. In chess, having a good but general, overall view of game principles is not good enough. You need to learn a principle and start working with it on the chessboard. When I say learn a principle, I mean learn the most basic underlying principle and start put it to use in your games. I highly suggest using a chess app as your opponent when trying this out. Let me explain further:
Opening principle one: control the board’s center with a pawn. Make sure you are starting every game with a centralized pawn move (playing against a computer opponent). Try to play your best during the rest of the game even if you lose. Just worry about applying that first principle before moving on to the next principle. Ask yourself questions. My electronics professor was big on this. Question why you have to do something. Ask yourself why we start the game with a centralized pawn move? Asking questions will help solidify your grasp of specific game theories (as long as you honestly search for an answer).
After you master the first opening principle, move onto principle two, developing your minor pieces (Knights and Bishops) towards the board’s center. Again, play against an app rather than another person because you can start the game over if things go horribly wrong. Only move on to the next principle after you are consistently following principle two and you understand the reasoning behind the theory.
It’s important to note that each of us requires a different amount of time to work each step in this process. It might take you three times as long to achieve your goal compared to someone else. Don’t worry about that! What matters is comprehension, your comprehension to be exact. The key here is to take on small chunks of theory rather than all of it at once and not setting a rigid timetable for achieving your goals. Theory and practice are really a balancing act and those who do it well are rewarded with a wealth of knowledge. We’ll finish our game next time and speaking of games, here’s one to enjoy until then.