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We’ve all been told that cramming, or “massed” practice is bad. That we need to space our practice out over time to make things stick in long-term memory (a.k.a. “distributed” practice).

And how long, uninterrupted, marathon practice sessions, aren’t as efficient or productive as splitting our practice up into smaller, shorter, chunks.

But a recent study suggests that this might not always be true. That sometimes, taking too long of a break between practice sessions could negate all the work we just put in.

Wait…WHAT?!

Pitch discrimination

A team of researchers recruited 46 participants to participate in several days of pitch-discrimination training.

Which was a bit like a game I played when I got my first tuner, where I practiced discriminating between 440 Hz, 441 Hz, and 442 Hz (not quite as exciting as Mario Kart or even Minesweeper, but when you’re a middle school kid procrastinating on scales, pretty much anything becomes an appealing alternative).

Similarly, the participants in this study were presented with two short tones – one at 1 kHz (basically a B that’s inching towards a C) and one at a pitch slightly lower than 1 kHz. Their task was simply to indicate which of the two was lower.

In order to prove that they weren’t just guessing, they needed to identify the lower pitch correctly 79% of the time. The ultimate goal of training being, to see how far they could lower their “discrimination threshold” – that is, the difference in frequencies that was required for them to consistently identify the lower tone. Would they be able to notice a 1 Hz difference? 2 Hz? More? Less?

Five approaches to practice

Everyone started out with a test, to establish a baseline level of performance, and then to test out various practice schedules in the context of learning a new skill, the participants were split into five groups.

One group (the short-training group) practiced for a single, uninterrupted 20-minute session per day.

Another group (the long-training group) practiced for a single, uninterrupted 40-minute session per day.

A third group (the long-break group) practiced for 20 minutes, took a 30-min break, and then practiced for another 20 minutes each day.

A fourth group (the short-breaks group) practiced for 5 minutes, took at 6-min break, then practiced another 5 minutes, took another 6-min break, etc.

And then there was a final group (the control group) which didn’t get any practice at all.

Which group improved the most?

To see how much of their new pitch discrimination skills really sunk in, everyone came back to the lab for a final test about two weeks after their initial baseline test.

Before we dig into the results of this study, which group (or groups) do you think improved the most over the course of the training?

Ok…ready for the answer?

Well, the short-training group did not improve much from day to day, and didn’t demonstrate a significant improvement from the baseline test to the final test. So at least on this particular task, 20 minutes of practice a day was not enough practice for meaningful, long-term benefits.

The long-training group, on the other hand, did show improvements from day to day, and from pre-test to post-test. So while 20 minutes may have been too little, 40 minutes was definitely enough for their practice to stick.

And here’s where things get interesting.

Even though we tend to think that practice breaks can be helpful, the long-break group did NOT demonstrate improvements from day to day, nor from the baseline test to the final test. It seems that this was a combination of 20 minutes not being long enough to get the hang of the task, and a 30-minute break being too long, causing them to lose too much before they had a chance to resume practicing.

Because even though the short-breaks group ended up with 30-minutes worth of break time in their practice session overall, they, like the long-training group also improved from day to day and from pre-test to post-test. Which suggests that while 5 minutes may not be enough time to get the hang of the task, 6-min breaks are relatively short, and not so long that they weren’t able to resume what they were doing in their practice session, reach a certain minimum “learning threshold” by the end of the day’s practice, and make improvements anyway.

Caveats

It’s important to note that pitch discrimination is a type of perceptual learning, which is not necessarily the same as learning motor skills or studying for a history exam. So the most direct application of this study would be in a class like ear training, which does involve similar challenges.

That said, it does seem like some of the principles could still be applied to practicing, in the sense that our practice often requires discriminating between detailed nuances, not just of sound, but in terms of the movement of our fingers, arms, mouth, and air, etc., which are often incredibly subtle and require a good bit of sensory awareness.

Takeaways

As I was writing, my 12-year old snuck a peek at the study, mulled it over in his head for a moment, and then proceeded to explain to me why I should let him play “practice” Overwatch1 for longer, uninterrupted periods of time, instead of insisting that he take breaks to do his homework, eat, shower, sleep, walk his dog, etc.

Needless to say, I don’t think the takeaway is that we need to engage in marathon practice sessions and avoid breaks during and between practice sessions. I think we just need to be more thoughtful of when we take breaks and how long we make them, relative to where we are in the learning process of whatever we’re working on.

For instance, let’s say you’re struggling with a tricky shift, and finally get it right. That’s awesome, but this is probably not the best time to celebrate by going out in the hall, chatting with your friends, losing track of time, and trying to pick up where you were a half-hour ago. This is probably the exact moment where it’s critical to keep at it for just a few minutes more, to make sure you have a concrete sense of what exact adjustments produced this mini-breakthrough in your playing, before rewarding yourself with a longer break.

In essence, spaced practice may be more effective only after you’ve reached a certain learning threshold. And so in the early stages of working on something new, it could be better to engage in some massed practice and either a) keep at the skill until you reach this threshold before taking a long break, or b) make sure you keep coming back to the skill, taking shorter breaks until you do reach that threshold.

Which of course begs the question – how are we supposed to know if we’ve reached the learning threshold?

Hmm…

Well, that’s where things get a little unclear.

In this particular study, the learning threshold was at about 40 minutes, but for different tasks, and for different people, it could be much shorter or longer.

I suspect it’s one of those things that happens a bit by feel, on a case-by-case basis. As in, if you get to a point where you’re like, “I think I get it,” and you have something tangible you can put your finger on – even if it’s not perfect yet – maybe that’s enough for you to be able to come back to it later and pick up where you were. Which is frustratingly imprecise, but perhaps part of the art of practicing, monitoring your own learning, and becoming a better practicer over time.

What sort of criteria do you use to judge when you’ve reached a minimum learning threshold and can move on to something else?

Footnotes

  1. A team-based online first-person shooter game