Evidence That Too Much Repetition and Consistency in Practice Could Potentially Hinder the Learning Process (WHAT?!)

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I remember sitting in on a master class one summer in which my friend was playing for the Russian cellist Natalia Gutman. After he finished playing, she smiled, kind of chuckled a bit, and said a few words to her translator. Who explained that she thought he was playing his instrument completely wrong, but because he sounded so great, he should just keep doing what he was doing, and she had no desire to change anything about his technique.

Indeed, when you think about your favorite musicians (or athletes), don’t they all have a unique physical style and approach to playing? Like, if you could somehow turn Glenn Gould and Martha Argerich videos into stick figure videos for instance, it would still be pretty easy to identify which was which, right?

No one-size-fits-all?

Research on athletes suggests that not only do different individuals have different approaches to movement that enable them to achieve the same results, there’s actually a surprising amount of variability from one repetition to the next even for the same athlete. Meaning, they may never use the same exact combination of joint angles and force and acceleration from one repetition to the next, yet still consistently make the basket, hit the desired target, or throw the ball to the same point. 

In much the same way that you could produce a consistently beautiful sound, note after note, but without using the same exact combination of bow weight, speed, point of contact, and number of bow hairs making contact with the string from one note to the next. 

And this flexibility turns out to be quite important, because once you leave the practice room, you inevitably have to adapt to never-before-encountered situations on the fly, whether it’s the demands of an eccentric conductor, a hall’s quirky acoustics, or your excitable cellist’s spontaneous decision to take the fast movement a few clicks faster than they did in rehearsal.

The traditional approach…

But this flexibility, and the variability in mechanics that you see from one performer to the next is not really reflected in the traditional approach to learning. In that we all typically start out by learning how to perform a new skill in a very specific, prescribed way. As if there’s only one single correct way to perform the skill, and the key to success is lots and lots of perfect repetitions.

But if we all eventually end up deviating from this hypothetical ideal in some way or another, is the traditional “here’s-the-correct-way-to-perform-this-skill-so-do-a-bunch-of-repetitions-until-you-get-it-right” approach the best way to learn a skill? Or is there an alternative that might be better?

“Differential learning”

In the late 1990’s, German motor learning researcher Wolfgang Schöllhorn proposed something new. An approach that he called differential learning. Where instead of focusing on super consistent “perfect” repetitions of a skill with minimal variability from one repetition to the next, the idea is to encourage the learner to maximize variability from one repetition to the next. And to explore a much broader range of possible movement patterns, with little repetition of any one variation, in order to intuitively discover what works best for them. To basically allow the learner to do things in all the “wrong” ways as well as the “right” ways.

Like practicing a penalty kick in soccer with one eye closed. Or dribbling with your hands crossed over your chest.

Or for a young violin student, for instance, the traditional approach might be to encourage the student to keep the bow perfectly straight and follow a consistent path between the bridge and fingerboard every single time they practice their scales. Whereas the differential learning approach might be to encourage them to play close to the bridge, or over the finger board, or where the bow drifts further away from the bridge as they get closer to the tip, or with a funky bow grip of some kind, while standing on one leg, or with both eyes closed, etc. from one repetition of the scale to the next (while still trying one’s best to produce a beautiful sound, play in tune, etc.).

Which all sounds kind of fun…but what’s the point of this? What benefits does the differential approach have over the traditional method?

Let’s take a look!

A toothbrushing study

A group of 54 children, aged 6-9 years old, were recruited to participate in a toothbrushing study (Pabel et al., 2018).

Over the course of 15 days, a third of the students continued brushing like normal (control), while another third were given some training in the correct brushing technique and supervised by a dentist (traditional learning), and the final third were given the same training and a toothbrushing exercise to do selected randomly from a list (differential learning).

The exercises ranged from brushing their teeth with a 2kg weight on their wrist, or while sitting on an exercise ball, or with one eye covered, or with soccer goalie gloves on, or with their non-dominant hand, or with both hands at once, or in a different sequence than they were originally taught, etc.

And then they followed up with the kids at day 21, 42, and 63 to see if there were any changes to the buildup of plaque and propensity for bleeding compared with day 1. 

And was there any difference between the groups?

Results

Yep! 

The differential learning group had the lowest plaque scores at each of the follow-up measurements, and had significantly better results in both areas of dental health as compared with the control and traditional learning groups.

Ok, so these crazy variations might have helped with first and second-graders, but maybe this simply turned toothbrushing into more of a game, increasing their engagement in the task… 

Is there any evidence that this helps with adults, doing something a little more serious?

Dental students

Well, sticking with the theme of dental health, a study of third-year dental surgery students (Pabel et al., 2017) found similar results.

In this study, 32 students were either taught how to prepare a partial crown through a traditional approach or through a differential learning approach.

The traditional approach involved a video demonstration, verbal instructions, lots of practice and repetition of the correct procedure, and verbal and written feedback by supervisors throughout learning. Whereas the differential approach involved the same video demonstration and verbal instructions, but no expert feedback, and a series of varying practice challenges instead of normal “perfect practice” and repetition.

Like the toothbrushing study, these variations included preparing the partial crown with a weight on one’s dominant hand, or while using the non-dominant hand, or with glasses reversed, or with the practice dummy head continuously moving, or with the dummy’s mouth partially closed, or while wearing earplugs, or with the dominant hand attached to a resistance band, etc.

And did one approach work any better than the other?

Results

Well, the students were tested twice on their ability to prepare a partial crown. The first test took place on the day right after they completed their training. And the second test took place 20 weeks later.

At the first test, the differential learning group performed slightly better, as 68% of those students passed the exam, while 54.3% of the traditional learning students also passed. But this difference wasn’t statistically significant, so when it comes to performance right after training, there may not be much of a difference between the two learning methods.

But when it was time for the second test, which is a better indicator of how much of what they learned in their training stuck, it was a different story. When tested several months after their training, the differential learning group performed waaay better, with a passing rate of 68.8% to 18.9% for the traditional learning group.

So what can we learn from these studies?

Caveats

Well, before we go into takeaways, it’s important to note that this is still a developing area of motor learning. There’s a lot of intriguing research here, with some cool findings in a range of different sports (it’s not just oral hygiene!), and a recent meta-analysis of the studies in this area did find that differential learning shows promise. But there are still a lot of questions that researchers are still exploring. For instance, it’s not really clear how much variability, or what type of variability is best, and when.

Schöllhorn has suggested that those with less experience, whose movements are still naturally pretty variable, would probably do best with smaller or less extreme types of variation at first. While those who are more skilled and already performing skills pretty consistently may benefit from exploring a broader and more extreme range of variations.

(And if you want to do a much deeper dive, check out this page where Arizona State University professor Rob Gray has curated tons more info on differential learning and provides four guidelines on how to implement this with students – located under the heading “So, how do I find the ‘optimal level of noise’ as a coach?”)

Takeaways

For me, there are a few main takeaways.

For one, I think it’s another reminder that the practice strategies that lead to the fastest improvements right this second, don’t necessarily translate into better learning, retention, and performance tomorrow.

But more than that, I like that the differential learning approach seems to destigmatize mistakes in the learning process. Like, instead of getting all tense and worrying about whether you are playing “correctly” or not, if the goal is to try a wide range of possibilities to discover what works best for you, there is no such thing as a mistake. There are simply approaches that work better and approaches that work less well, and exploring them all is part of the self-discovery process.

It also reminds me a lot of something that I read pianist Martin Krause had his students do. Specifically, he’d have them play their repertoire in ways that they would never dream of doing on stage. With vastly different articulations or dynamics that weren’t in the score, transposed in different keys, etc.

Kind of like the oddball putts that you see in this golf video: The best thing you can do for your putting

Whether you’re already doing something like differential learning in your practice or teaching, or are getting excited at the thought of trying a bit of this in the coming week, what differential learning variations – from subtle to crazy – might be fun to try, specific to your instrument? Playing piano while standing on one foot? Or timpani while sitting on an exercise ball with your eyes closed? Please share below in the comments!


References

Pabel, S. O., Freitag, F., Hrasky, V., Zapf, A., & Wiegand, A. (2018). Randomised controlled trial on differential learning of toothbrushing in 6- to 9-year-old children. Clinical Oral Investigations, 22(6), 2219–2228. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00784-017-2313-x

Pabel, S. O., Pabel, A. K., Schmickler, J., Schulz, X., & Wiegand, A. (2017). Impact of a Differential Learning Approach on Practical Exam Performance: A Controlled Study in a Preclinical Dental Course. Journal of Dental Education, 81(9), 1108–1113. https://doi.org/10.21815/jde.017.066

Tassignon, B., Verschueren, J., Baeyens, J. P., Benjaminse, A., Gokeler, A., Serrien, B., & Clijsen, R. (2021). An Exploratory Meta-Analytic Review on the Empirical Evidence of Differential Learning as an Enhanced Motor Learning Method. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.533033

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Comments

15 Responses

  1. As a professional drum tutor for many years I’ve been orbiting around this theory for a while and it was so great to see it laid out like this… thank you Noa! I often share footage of legendary drummers with my students and I’m then having to muddy the waters on technique because, well they’re not always demonstrating the same things I’m instructing my students to do. Some of the technique on show is “terrible”.
    This leaves a learning gap for me as an educator, but this light bulb moment means I now have a validated and engaging way to use creative and differential approaches that allow the student to really discover what works best for them.

  2. Thanks Noa! As a rock and roll guitarist I do a variation of this. I try playing songs on very different types of guitars: my favorite guitar, one with high action, one acoustic, one with heavy gauge strings, one de tuned, etc. I always appreciate coming back to my standby, and I feel like I’m playing it better than I ever had before.

  3. For me, this is the difference between technique and tactics, between the acquisition of a skill, and the adequate and appropriate application of the skill under any and all circumstances, no matter how wild or crazy.
    There are lots of ways to play a middle C on the guitar.
    You can play it cold, with a little vibrato or a lot, staccato, legato, pizzicato, avocato; I can bend it, slide up or down to it, make it fall or doit, ad infinitum ad groovium. But I still have to hit that C, and not a B. So at what point are you LEARNING (acquiring) the skill and at what point are you PRACTICING (developing) what you’ve learned? Chuck Berry’s animated antics while playing were cool — but I don’t think I’d start with that.
    What strikes me about the practice variations is that they require the player to be more “in the present moment,” and attentive, because of the variation, and that’s a good thing. I do that all the time. It adds something fresh and new that you can’t do if you’re just “phoning in” your repetitions while your mind wanders, as you are like to do when your brain gets bored with a known pattern. A variation may also, because of it’s uniqueness, trigger an emotional response, which could also account for the improved retention.
    Or, alternatively, I could just be nuts.

    1. All good points, Adam! I think all of these observations are true, and really just speaks to the range of learning approaches we can bring to both learning a skill, and getting better at performing that skill more flexibly in a range of contexts with varying demands, that go beyond the repetition, repetition, repetition that I think we tend to associate with the idea of practicing.

  4. Hi Noa, I’m a private clarinet instructor with a BA in clarinet performance, and LMSW therapist in private practice.
    Here’s my take: Often, when we tell students to do something, like take deeper breaths, they tense up and do the opposite. This very circumstance includes me, even now at age 53, when I have performance anxiety.
    What if we tell them to take shallow breaths, staggered inhale breaths, meaning inhaling in several short bursts, instead of one long, deep breath, etc?
    I’m excited about trying this, because I think it will help defeat that critical Self 1, a la Barry Green in his “Inner Game of Music.”
    Let me know if you think I’m on the right track! Thank you for your insights and research 😊

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      I have to confess that I don’t know a ton about breathing for wind players, but a violinist colleague told me that she often encourages students to focus more on the exhale than the inhale. And in doing so, the inhale often takes care of itself. Maybe this could be a thing to try as well?

      Noa

  5. Hello,
    This is the first time I post a comment here so first of all thank you and congratulation for all of your work, this blog is a gold mine! I’m a professional double bass teacher and performer and a Feldenkrais method lover. The idea of differentiating movements by integrating “useless” pattern is very effective in my opinion. For string players, beside playing on one leg, or playing while walking, other weird patterns can help letting go of useless tensions in performing the main skill, leading to better results: for exemple try to bow open strings or scale while moving your tongue or your jaw in the same or in the opposite direction … (or the jaw in the same direction of the bow but the tongue the other way around). Funny and helpful!

  6. Hi Noa, I particularly enjoyed reading/listening to this one. I use this idea a lot with piano students, but not ever in the realm of motor learning/technique. I use it for developing musical insight and understanding, fostering creativity, imagining a more highly dimensioned musical sound, etc. And I’ve never had a name for it! For example, I’ll often say to a student something like “the left hand part here is clearly not the main event, but could you play the passage as if it were?” Or “ignore all statements of the subject in this fugue; the episodes are the main events.” I ask students to play complex passages without pedal, or with degrees of pedal (“no more than ½ pedal” or “you can use the pedal only 3 times”) even though in real performance they’ll be using the pedal extensively. Another good one is to play 6/8 as if it’s ¾ and vice versa. It definitely helps develop more nuanced listening and flexible response. I’d say even the game of musical charades (“play this like Lang Lang; now like Green Gould”) takes advantage of this idea in the musical realm. I have a little harder time seeing how I would use this idea systematically in motor learning/technical development, so I’ll be curious to hear what other people do with this idea in that realm. Thanks for a great post!

  7. Hi! Again interesting. Myself I play the trumpet (big bands) and the cornet (brass band). I have noticed that when practicing difficult runs with lots of raised and lowered notes – I will have to, at first, take it very easy,; after I´ve managed to get the run rather fine I will play it just a little faster.
    After having practiced for some time I mow know the run (or entire song) by heart.
    But then: I will step up the tempo so instead of playing in say 130 bpm I will play it in 160. Doing this almost immediately will reveal the weak spots + that it will make me a tad nervous. Then I practice the weak spots per se. Doing this with my eyes closed helps a lot.
    Another way is to choose different styles such as Rumba, Cha Cha, swing, whatever.
    The result (most of the time) is that nothing will surprise me – I´m ready for whatever happens.

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