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One of my enduring childhood practice memories is of the binder my mom maintained, in which she would write out a list of all the things I had to practice in every practice session, with an empty circle next to each one.

The idea being, once I had finished working on that part of my practice to-do list, she’d fill in the corresponding circle with tiny eyes and a smile, transforming it into a smiley face.

She called this whole process “happy face.”

Did this make practicing all unicorns and rainbows?

Um…no, it certainly did not. But while I’m pretty sure there were times when I grabbed a pen and drew in frowny faces and tears when she wasn’t looking, I did do the work.

And when I look back, I feel like in many ways, my most dedicated years of practice were in my first 10 years of playing the violin. Much of which involved using this “happy face” method of planning and monitoring my practice activities.

On the face of it (ha, pun!), this seems like a relatively inconsequential part of my actual practice routine. But I came across a study recently that brought all these memories back, and made me wonder if it was more significant than I realized at the time.

Because the act of keeping track of your practice process is actually a strategy known as “self-monitoring,” which is part of an approach to learning known as self-regulated learning.

We’ve explored some of the research on self-regulated learning in the past (like here, here and here), but the gist, is that self-regulated learning involves taking charge of your own learning process and being your own coach or teacher. Taking the initiative to set your own goals, monitor your progress, and make adjustments as you go.

(Which, by the way, is somewhat distinct from self-regulation, which usually refers to the ability to control your emotions and impulses – as cookie monster explains, and even – gasp! – demonstrates, in this recent NPR bit ).

In any case, activities like “happy face” seem pretty trivial. How much of a difference in learning could self-monitoring possibly make?

Struggling with subtraction

I actually found an older study in this area to be pretty illustrative (Schunk, 1983).

Elementary school teachers at two schools were shown a math test of subtraction problems, and asked to nominate students in their classes whom they thought would struggle and have difficulty getting more than 25% of them correct.

This led to a pool of 30 students, ages 8-9, who were presented with a set of subtraction problems, and asked how certain they were that they could solve them (a simple assessment of “self-efficacy”).

Then, they took a subtraction test consisting of 18 subtraction problems. The kids were given as much time as they needed to solve the problems, so that the researchers could calculate a “persistence” score based on how long they continued to work on a difficult problem before giving up and moving on.

Three study sessions

After everyone completed the test, the students were randomly assigned to one of three groups and spent 30 minutes per day, for three days, working through similar types of subtraction problems.

Before handing in their work for the day, one group was asked to count the number of pages they completed during their study session, and to write that number down on a “progress” page at the end of their packet of problems (self-monitoring group).

Another group was asked to take their packet to a proctor at the end of their practice, as the proctor would count the number of pages completed and record this at the back of the packet while the student watched (external monitoring group).

And a final group simply turned in their work each day, with no recording of how much work they had actually accomplished (control).

A post-test

After the third study session, the students took another test, similar to the first one, to see if anything changed.

And there were some interesting changes indeed.

And some intriguing results

Each group completed about the same number of pages per day, so there were no significant differences between the groups in terms of how much work they did. That is to say, they each practiced about the same amount.

Test scores

However, there was a significant difference in the groups’ test scores on the post-test.

Their original test scores were all about the same – with 2.5, 2.7, and 2.4 questions correct out of 18 for the self-monitoring, external monitoring, and control groups, respectively. But on the final test, although all three groups improved, the monitoring groups scored significantly higher than the control group – with scores of 13.3 (self) and 12.1 (external) compared to 5.8 for the control group.

Self-efficacy

The students’ self-efficacy1 also changed over the course of the three study sessions.

Before the first test, the students felt that they could answer an average of 5.1 (self), 4.8 (external), and 5.0 (control) questions out of 18. But before the final test, the two monitoring groups felt that they could answer 15.6 (self) and 14.9 (external) questions, while the control group’ confidence remained low, at just 7.2 questions out of 18.

Persistence

This increased confidence was reflected in their persistence as well.

On the first test, the average amount of time spent on each question was about the same across all three groups – 15.7 (self), 17.2 (external), and 14.8 (control) seconds per question. But on the final test, while the control group’s time per question increased just slightly to 18.6 seconds, the monitoring groups’ times almost doubled – to 30.6 for the self-monitoring group, and 33.7 for the external monitoring group.

Becoming a self-directed learner

Simply counting the number of completed pages during each study session seems like an incredibly small thing, but self-regulated learning research suggests that it’s little things like this, that help students cultivate a greater sense of ownership of their own studying, and become more autonomous learners.

Which I imagine would have significant learning effects in the long term, in the same way that compounding interest doesn’t seem like a big deal on a day-to-day basis, but really starts to add up over time.

The long-term impact?

Indeed, a 2017 study (Bartulovic, Young, & Baker) surveyed 272 athletes, at all levels of skill, to see if there might be any relationship between how self-regulated their daily practice was, and the level of competition they had attained.

And as it turns out, the more self-regulated an athlete’s training was, the more likely they were to be at the elite national or international level of competition. Whereas those with lower self-regulation scores were more likely to be at a less-elite state or regional level, or recreational (local) level of competition.

And of the six elements of self-directed learning they measured (i.e. planning, self-monitoring, evaluation, reflection, effort, and self-efficacy), the single factor that most effectively differentiated elite and less-elite athletes from recreational athletes was…wait for it …self-monitoring.

Self-monitoring examples

So what exactly does self-monitoring entail?

Well, I think it can take many forms, but the essence is that you actively observe and monitor the process of training or practicing as you do it.

Which might involve keeping track of whether you’re using your time effectively, or making progress towards the practice goals you set for the session – and adjusting accordingly if you aren’t.

Or stepping back for a moment to gauge whether you’re adequately focused on the problem at hand, or stating to space out.

Or asking yourself whether your solutions for ironing out a tricky shift are leading you in the right direction, or if it might be more productive to move onto a different problem for now.

Or whether slow practice has reached the end of its usefulness for the moment, and if it may be time to switch to “note-grouping” practice.

All this to say, I think self-monitoring probably evolves and becomes more sophisticated over time as one’s level of playing improves. And as one’s ability to gauge progress and become discerning of finer nuances and details becomes increasingly refined. And as your toolbox of practice strategies expands as well.

Starting small

But we have to start somewhere, and maybe the most important thing is to build self-monitoring into one’s practice routine as a habit – even if it’s at the most basic level at first.

So for this week, I’m tempted to borrow from the Schunk study, and see what happens if I ask my daughter to simply write out her own practice to-do list as my mom once did for me (though perhaps with puppy paws instead of smiley faces), and check things off as she goes. And if that goes well, maybe she’ll be willing to take a moment after practicing, to write down what she actually ended up doing too…

What kind of self-monitoring strategies have you found most (or least) useful in your own practice? I’d be curious to hear in the comments below!

Additional reading

If you want to learn more about self-regulated learning and how to integrate this into your own practice, here’s an overview from the researcher who has done much of the important research in this area:

Becoming a Self-Regulated Learner: An Overview


References

Bartulovic, D., Young, B. W., & Baker, J. (2017). Self-regulated learning predicts skill group differences in developing athletes. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 31, 61-69.

Schunk, D. H. (1983). Progress self-monitoring: Effects on children’s self-efficacy and achievement. Journal of Experimental Education, 51, 89-93.

Footnotes

  1. Self-efficacy being how strongly you believe in your ability to perform the task at hand and achieve a particular goal – or in this case, to correctly answer the math problems presented to them.