Autonomy in the Practice Room: How Choice Can Enhance Learning

24 hours sounds like a lot, but once you take out time for sleeping, eating, school, homework, Tae Kwon Do practice, etc., there’s frustratingly little left over.

And everyone just seems to get busier with each passing year.

So when it comes to homework, sometimes I really just want my kids to get it done in the most expeditious way possible. But this sentiment seems to transform me into something of a homework tyrant. Telling them when to do it, where to do it, in what order, and so on. “Hey! Homework! Now! Here! Sit! Math! Get a pencil! Where do all the &*#%^ erasers keep disappearing to?!

Similarly, when it comes to practicing, it’s easy to resort to assigning homework in terms of time or number of repetitions. Like “practice scales for 15 minutes” or “do this 10 times.”

This is how researchers have typically studied learning in the lab too. Manipulating variables like blocked vs. random practice or constant vs. variable practice, and leaving choice out of the equation. As in, the experimenter decides how long you practice, which skills you learn when, and what kind of feedback you get.

Kind of one-sided, no?

More recently, the motor learning literature has begun to explore the notion of autonomy in practice and learning. What happens if the learner gets to choose how long to practice? What order to practice the skills in? When to get feedback about their performance?

Aim and click

Researchers at McMaster University (Canada) were curious what would happen if people were allowed to guide their own practice, rather than being forced to adhere to a more rigid and prescribed practice structure.

All participants were tasked with learning a tricky aiming/clicking task on a computer. Presented with a 4×4 grid of squares on the screen (like a mini checker board), participants had to use a mouse to guide an on-screen cursor through a specific route of squares as quickly as possible, pausing only to right or left click on each square based on the instructions for that pattern (there were four different routes/clicking patterns they had to learn). To make things more challenging, participants had to do all of this with their non-dominant hand. And if you’ve ever tried to use your other hand to manipulate a mouse, you know how awkward it can feel for a while.

Blocked vs. random vs. self-regulated vs. yoked

All participants were allowed 128 total practice repetitions – 32 reps for each of the four patterns – but their practice was structured differently. One group of participants engaged in blocked practice, and did all 32 repetitions of each pattern before moving onto the next one.

Another group did random practice, where the 128 repetitions were divided into groups of 16 practice attempts, each consisting of 4 trials of each pattern. But they never got to practice the same pattern more than twice in a row, before the computer made them switch to a different pattern.

A third group got to do self-regulated practice, where they got to practice the patterns in any order they wanted. Before each trial, these participants were presented with the prompt: “Which pattern would you like to practice on the next trial? Pattern A = press a, Pattern B = press b…” and whichever key they pressed would allow them to practice that pattern. It’s important to note that these folks still did 32 repetitions of each pattern, just like the other groups. They just had more choice about what pattern they practiced and when. If, however, they had already completed 32 repetitions of a pattern, the prompt would no longer list that as an option and they’d have to choose a different one.

The last group was a yoked group, in which each individual practiced the patterns in the same order as a randomly matched counterpart in the self-regulated group. The researchers wanted to be sure that any significant effects seen in the self-regulated group’s results were due to the impact of choice, and not because there was something special about the order in which they practiced. So, they had a group of individuals to practice the patterns in the same exact order that the self-regulated group did – only minus the freedom to choose that order.

Time and accuracy

Throughout their training session, each of their practice repetitions were graded on two factors:

(1) Time – how long it took for them to complete maneuvering/clicking through the pattern

(2) Accuracy – whether the cursor was actually inside the box when they clicked the mouse, or if they accidentally clicked outside the box

Time for a test!

24 hours later, all the participants came back to the lab for a retention test to see how much of what they practiced the previous day stuck. The test consisted of 16 trials – 4 of each pattern – each presented in random order.


Overall, participants in every group – blocked, random, self-regulated, and yoked – got faster at completing the patterns during their practice session. However, 24 hours later, the blocked, random, and yoked groups performed worse (i.e. slower) on their test. The self-regulated group on the other hand, seemingly continued to improve overnight and actually performed better (i.e. faster) than they did in the last of their practice trials.


At the retention test, the blocked, random, and yoked groups had accuracy scores that were pretty consistent with the scores they were getting at the end of their practice session 24 hours prior. However, as with their time scores, the self-regulated practicers’ accuracy scores also seemed to improve overnight, as they demonstrated significantly fewer errors on the retention test than they did in their last block of practice trials the previous day.

Take action

All in all, it seems like having some degree of choice and freedom in deciding how to spend our practice time, and making choices about what to work on when, can help our learning “stick” more effectively.

Of course, there’s a difference between being actively intentional about what to practice in each successive moment and simply deciding that we will practice excerpt A, B, and C, setting a timer, and putting the rest of our practice session on autopilot. After all, the self-regulated practicers all had to choose which pattern to work on next – after each practice repetition – so they made an awful lot of deliberate choices over the course of the practice session.

Do you already practice in this sort of way? I remember skipping around from piece to piece, but don’t remember coming back to things quite like this within the same practice session. Is this something that would be possible to incorporate into a student’s practice habits?

More details

The effect of self-regulated and experimenter-imposed practice schedules on motor learning for tasks of varying difficulty.

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8 Responses

  1. We know that learning with spaced repetitions where we interleave the learning, ex doing ABABAB, would be better than the block AAABBB). In this case though, I wonder if the self regulated learners focused on practicing the harder sections more and rehearsed that more as part of their self regulation?

    Thanks for this and all your interesting blog posts.

    1. Dave, I had the same thought, until I noticed the part that said they still only got 32 repetitions of each, and once they reached 32 repetitions, that section was no longer an option. It sounds to me like you could really choose to focus on that hard etude that you want to spend 15 minutes on, but you will still get in your 15 minutes of scales. You just might not choose to do scales first and then etude.

      That’s something I have a really hard time breaking away from. I have my routine, and the things I want to get covered, but maybe it would be better, when my brain gets fatigued from focusing on one thing, to move on to the next thing and then come back later. Doing that, though, requires consciously knowing what you are going to accomplish in each session. That would actually be a plus!

  2. I think you are right to do this with your children. To get oneself to work, it is good to “actively” “name” all the things that we need to do the work and to actively name the work we have to do (its title or by giving it a name, a title). By “actively” “naming”, I mean “calling” the elements outloud one by one, and making sure we have them all, and we haven’t forgotten anything. This is one of the tips that can help us to do our best in the practice room.

  3. What comes to mind for me is that if you are practicing with choice rather than following a regimen, you have to maintain the big picture in your mind of what you are trying to accomplish and how each bit you are practicing fits into the big picture. In the study, the computer took care of this task, but in real life, the learner must manage it.

    In my opinion, some learners are better than others at keeping the big picture in focus. Some, like young children, are terrible at it and really need a framework.

    To me it’s clear that the learner who can keep the big picture awareness as they focus on polishing necessary details will make the best progress. But we probably need a bunch more studies to figure out how to teach people this new task management skill!

  4. I think I found the secret of reading a book , a score : we have to permanently recall what we know, even the basic things. “Using” what one knows means “saying” or “writing” it. NO knowledge without proof of knowledge. Permanently saying what I know (to begin with: I’m holding a violi in my hands. A violin is what ? A violin is a music instrument. ) All what seems obvious, I say it out loud or write it. Everyday. Doing so, I ensure that learning will effectively happen at the edges of what I know (since by stating what I know, I am clear about it).

  5. We can’t change the effect that music has on us…
    We can change what we do…
    I was wondering if it was not going to sound like rote leatrning if I memorize options of interpretation.
    Emphasis is made on quality of sound. I struggle with this notion ofquality : aren’t there only “ranges” of sounds?
    At times, I am not sensible to music, and “look” at it when listening to it. I become aware that The quality of the playing of such or such musician doesn’t come from the quality of his sound but the variety of types of sounds he-she can produce in one piece.
    Aren’t all the reponses with the instrument?
    Is conservatory necessary? I found that the did almost not appeared in your blog.What’s the point of the conservatory? This is a simple idea of article.

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