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Aside from the day I graduated from velcro sneakers and learned how to tie my lace-up Spiderman shoes, I don’t think I thought very much about knots until the day my dad showed me how to tie a slip knot . Which led to a brief fascination with knot-tying.

Of course, in those days, you couldn’t just hop onto the internet and look up a video, so I ended up getting a knot-tying kit (this exact one, in fact). Which is when my initial excitement quickly faded…because learning how to tie knots with only a hand-drawn diagram to guide you is a special kind of challenge that 8-year old me was just not up to.

Things are quite different today, of course, as YouTube instructional run the gamut from knot-tying to solving a Rubik’s Cube to cooking the perfect eggs to surviving an alien abduction .

And the research does suggest that observational learning – where we learn how to perform a skill by watching someone else perform that skill – can be a useful way to enhance learning and performance. 

But a recent study suggests that if you’re going to engage in this kind of learning, there’s a better way to do it. That a simple tweak to the process can increase the effectiveness of this learning method, whether you’re watching a YouTube video, or observing your teacher demonstrate a new skill in your lesson.

An Australian study

A team of Australian researchers (Mierowsky, Marcus, & Ayres, 2019) recruited 48 Australian university students with varying levels of musical experience.

Everyone had at least one year of prior music experience on an instrument of some kind, but those who had less than a year of piano experience were part of the “less experienced” group. The other half of participants, who all had at least 2 years of piano experience were considered part of the “more experienced” group.

4 short musical passages

Each participant was tasked with learning four short musical passages of increasing levels of difficulty, by watching videos of a pianist playing them first. 

Passage 1 was a 10-second clip involving a single hand. Passages 2 and 3 were a little more difficult, lasting 10 seconds and involving both hands. And passage 4 was the most challenging, requiring just a single hand, but lasting 15 seconds. Here are some excerpts of the passages:

From: Mierowsky, R., Marcus, N., & Ayres, P. (2019). Using mimicking gestures to improve observational learning from instructional videos. Educational Psychology, 1–20.

With video demonstrations

The video clips were filmed from above the keyboard, so that the pianist’s hands and fingers would be clearly visible. Like so:

From: Mierowsky, R., Marcus, N., & Ayres, P. (2019). Using mimicking gestures to improve observational learning from instructional videos. Educational Psychology, 1–20.

Gesturing vs. no gesturing

Each student was told that they would have four chances to watch the instructional video for a passage, after which they would be recorded playing the passage themselves.

Half of the participants (12 less experienced and 12 more experienced participants) were instructed to watch the video with their hands laying flat and still on the table in front of them all four times. This was the no-gesturing group.

The other participants were also told to watch the video with their hands laying flat and still – but just for the first two viewings. For the last two viewings, they were asked to mimic the pianist’s hand movements in the air while watching the pianist play. So like air guitar, but for piano. This was the gesturing group.

And how did they do when it was time to play the passages on a real piano?

Scoring

Well, the participants’ performances were evaluated on two basic criteria. A – did they play the right notes? And B – did they do so in time, with no hesitations or delays?

Which group did better?

On average, the gesturing group – the one that engaged in air piano while watching the example videos – got higher scores than the no-gesturing group which kept their hands still when watching the videos.

The scores were 86.9 (out of 100) vs. 78.4 for passage #1; 86.5 vs. 63.1 for passage # 2; 78.4 vs. 59.9 for passage # 3; and 52.3 vs. 44.3 for passage #4.

However, there was one interesting exception.

On passage #1, the easiest sequence of notes, gesturing led to better performance for the less experienced folks, but worse performance for the more experienced folks.

Wait…what?!

The researchers note that this isn’t all that unexpected. They explain that there’s a phenomenon known as the “expertise reversal effect” that has been observed in some other learning contexts. The gist, is that using certain learning strategies to process information you already know well can be redundant, essentially taking up unnecessary mental bandwidth, and leading to poorer learning.

So what are the practical takeaways from this?

Take action

Well, my take is that if you’re going to watch or listen to recordings of a new piece you’re learning, it might help to accelerate the learning process if you make little physical gestures along with the recording.

No, this doesn’t mean you have to go full-on air guitar mode . Or pull a Mr. Bean . It seems that the idea is to use small subtle motions which simply approximate the movements that you’re going to use eventually. Like moving your fingers, or making small hand or arm movements.

The more intriguing suggestion that the researchers offer, is the idea of having students engage in gesturing or mimicking in lessons when their teacher demonstrates a new skill or technique. This seemed like a totally new idea to me – but perhaps there are some teachers who are already doing this? If so, please do share your experience in the comments – I’d be curious to hear how this works!

Caveats

One important thing to keep in mind when interpreting this study, is to remember that there’s a difference between short-term performance improvements and stable, long-term learning. And from this study alone, it’s not clear if the gesturing strategy leads to better learning, or just faster improvements in the moment.

Meaning, if you were to take a look at performance on these excerpts 24 hours later, would the gesturing group still perform better? Or would their performances regress back to a similar level as the non-gesturing group?

(BTW, if you’d like a refresher on the learning-performance distinction, here’s a good 4-min video and a previous post that gets into this important concept.)


Reference

Mierowsky, R., Marcus, N., & Ayres, P. (2019). Using mimicking gestures to improve observational learning from instructional videos. Educational Psychology, 1–20.

About Noa Kageyama, Ph.D.

Performance psychologist and Juilliard alumnus & faculty member Noa Kageyama teaches musicians how to beat performance anxiety and play their best under pressure through live classes, coachings, and an online home-study course. Based in NYC, he is married to a terrific pianist, has two hilarious kids, and is a wee bit obsessed with technology and all things Apple.

After Countless Hours of Practice, Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

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