A Practice Strategy That Could Potentially Be Twice as Effective as Regular Practice?


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.

For instance, there’s a study that came out a few years ago (Wymbs et al., 2016) which got some attention1 because it suggested that we may be able to double our rate of learning.

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!

Why…?

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?

Takeaways

There are a number of interesting takeaways from this study, but here are the top 3.

1. Reconsolidation

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.

2. Flexibility

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.


References

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

Footnotes

  1. Like here

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

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Comments

10 Responses

  1. Thanks for another terrific post, Noa. My decades of teaching and study reinforce the conclusion that variability in practice enhances not only our ability to learn efficiently but also to perform securely and artistically.
    Such variability can take the form of, for example, subtle interpretive changes as we repeat a passage (interpretive variability). Or, we might slow down and then speed up a passage to ensure technical ease (tempo variability).
    The value of variable practice is also backed up by research into the mental process known as reconstruction, which you address in your excellent post about interleaved practice. Plus, varying different elements helps musicians avert sliding into automated, unconscious repetition – the mindless “muscle memory” learning that doesn’t hold up under pressure.
    And variable practice supports both learning and memorization (e.g., my article The Four Stages of Memorization emphasizes variability in the ingraining and maintenance stages).
    Lastly, even before the publication of such important research, many musicians have intuitively grasped the importance of variability. In the poetic words of Pablo Casals, “Always try to find variety; it is the secret of music.” (Casals and the Art of Interpretation, p. 161)

  2. I wonder if a lot of this has to do with the higher level of concentration that happens when a memory task is varied, otherwise we can fall into mindless repetition that doesn’t stick.

    1. Yes, I think you’re right. The theme behind most effective strategies for learning seem to be depth of processing – the more engaged and harder our brain has to work, the more effectively we seem to learn. Kind of makes sense when you think about it. Just like working out our muscles.

  3. Dr. Kageyama, perhaps you’ve already considered whether this finding synthesizes well with your post based on the article on the study in which participants were told either that getting a putt into the large circle was good or that only putts in the small circle were considered good? What this study suggests to me is that if they ran that study again with two training sessions but induced one group of participants to focus on getting into the large circle in the first training session and into the small circle in the second training session, they would perform better than three other kinds of groups: those told to focus on getting into the large circle the whole time, those told to focus on getting into the small circle the whole time, and those who were told in the first session to focus on the small circle but in the second session to focus on the large circle.
    It has to do with the appropriateness of the challenge to the level to which the learner has already attained. Not saying this with a large amount of confidence, but I had the sense that someone would appreciate this two cents I put in and be able to take it further.

  4. Has some interesting implications for me. Us tiny-handed folk, we’re not exactly destined to play bass guitar – or are we? I’m putting this strategy to use by studying scales on my regular guitar earlier in the day, then waiting six hours before I do it again but on my bass guitar. To get a clean sound out of the bass guitar with my tiny hands requires a different approach, and will hopefully reinforce my dependency on my ears.

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