I’m not sure where I got this idea, but for most of my life, I assumed that practice = repetition. And that the more “perfect” repetitions I could do, whether that meant playing slowly, with rhythms, or with a metronome or tuner, the better I’d play.
I quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) resented this kind of practicing, because it all felt like a chore. Like having to do a bunch of the same type of math problems over and over again.
Fortunately, research in the last few decades tells us that practice doesn’t have to look like this. Or more accurately, that practicing shouldn’t look like this. In that simply maximizing the numbers of repetitions we can fit into a given period of time doesn’t make for better learning. And that effective practice is much more challenging (in a good way) and engaging than regular ol’ repetition-based practice.
At first glance, it’s one of those things that sounds way too good to be true. But on the other hand, wouldn’t it be nice if there really was a way?
Learning how to SVIPT
86 participants, split into three groups, were trained in a “sequential visuomotor isometric pinch task” or SVIPT.
Yeah, I know that sounds pretty technical, but basically it just entailed learning how to use a little doodad that controls the placement of a cursor on a computer screen based on how hard you squeeze it (a.k.a. the most annoying mouse in the world).
Everyone got 120 practice attempts, and then left the lab.
Training session #2
Six hours later, two of the groups came back to the lab for a second training session (the third group was the control group, so they didn’t have a second training session).
Oh, and why six hours? Well, in much the way that it takes jello a few hours to “set,” our brain needs a few hours to “consolidate” our new experience into long-term memory. They wanted to let the memory stabilize before bringing them back for more training. You’ll see why in a moment.
Anyhow, both groups were given 15 practice attempts to get reacquainted with the squeezy mouse thing, and then resumed with their training.
The second training session was much like the first one, in that both groups practiced the same skill for another 120 trials. However, while Group 1’s controller remained the same, Group 2’s controller was modified slightly. Specifically, the amount of pressure that was needed to move the cursor kept changing from one trial to the next. Not enough for them to notice, but enough to force them to constantly make subtle adjustments in order to maintain a high level of speed and accuracy. It would be like if the amount of force you needed to turn the steering wheel in your car changed every time you made a turn (a.k.a. the most annoying car in the world).
Who improved the most?
The next day, all three groups came back to the lab for a testing session, to see which group improved the most from the first session to the last.
The big winner was Group 2 – the group which had to make continuous subtle adjustments in the second training session. Their performance improved nearly twice as much as Group 1 (the group which simply repeated the same exact task again in their second training session)!
Furthermore, there was no significant difference in improvement between Group 1 and the control group from the first training session to the test. It’s almost as if they might as well not have bothered to practice again. Criminy!
So why did Group 2 improve so much more than Group 1?
Was it simply because they had to practice the task with more variability thrown in?
Nope. The researchers had another group go through the same training program but made them do the variable practice in their first training session instead of the second. Alas, it didn’t have the same effect. Group 2 – the group which did variable practice in the second training session – still improved more.
They even tried putting a group through variable practice in both training sessions. Group 2 still came out ahead.
It seems that there is something about learning a skill, waiting for it to stabilize, and then coming back to it for more practice but with a slightly modified set of parameters that strengthens the learning of the original skill.
The authors explain that this has to do with how memories are formed and edited. A set of processes called consolidation and reconsolidation.
Consolidation and reconsolidation
The gist is that when new skills are learned, the memory is initially pretty fragile and takes a few hours to “set” (a process know as consolidation).
But these memories are not necessarily set in stone. Like opening a Word document that has been sitting in some forgotten corner of your hard drive, whenever we retrieve a memory, it is temporarily susceptible to being edited, modified, or in the case of this study – strengthened – before it “sets” once again but in a slightly different way (i.e. reconsolidation).
So what does this all mean for us?
There are a number of interesting takeaways from this study, but here are the top 3.
It appears that we have the ability to boost our learning if we a) wait for the new skill to consolidate a bit first, then b) return to the skill and try to achieve the same (or higher) level of performance, but force ourselves to make adjustments by using a different bow, different mallets, piano with lighter/heavier touch, etc. Something that makes the task slightly more challenging and forces us to explore a wider range of the possible motor movements available to us.
One important side note: there were individual differences in how beneficial the variable practice was in strengthening learning. The folks who benefited most from this training were the ones who were the best at making adjustments and maintaining a high level of accuracy despite the fluctuations in grip pressure required to control the cursor. Where rather than doggedly sticking with the same old way of squeezing the cursor controller, they explored new strategies in order to maintain their level of performance. Which reminds me a bit of this study on how errors can sometimes enhance learning.
3. Established skills vs. new skills?
Before we get too excited and start making plans to halve our practice time, it’s important to note that this study looked at our ability to strengthen a new skill by leveraging the reconsolidation process. It’s not clear how well (or if) this would work on skills that are already more well-ingrained. And I don’t know that you can expect to double your progress day in and day out. But for new music or skills, this certainly sounds like a strategy worth experimenting with!
Originally posted on 2.21.2016; revised and republished on 1.9.2022.
Wymbs, N., Bastian, A., & Celnik, P. (2016). Motor Skills Are Strengthened through Reconsolidation. Current Biology, 26(3), 338–343. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.11.066