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On occasion, I’ll eavesdrop on my daughter as she does her daily piano practice. And I’ve noticed that one of her recurring practice habits is the tendency to repeat a tricky passage only as many times as it takes to get it right just once.

Sometimes I’ll poke my head out into the hall and ask her to try it again. To see if she really did fix the problem, or just got lucky.

And sometimes she’ll give it another go – but usually she just continues to play on and make her “I can’t hear you” face…

Which brings up an interesting question.

Namely, is it ok to move on after we’ve gotten a passage right once? And maybe come back to it later?

Or is it better to give each problem passage a preset number of repetitions, or a certain amount of time? And move on when we reach that number?

Practice schedules

These questions are all related to the issue of practice scheduling. Which gets into the nitty gritty of how to maximize the impact of each repetition we do in the practice room.

There’s a lot of interesting research in this area, and if you need a refresher, you can read more about the differences between two particular types of practice schedules – blocked and random practice – in a guest post by clarinetist Christine Carter right here.

The gist, is that blocked practice involve practicing a single skill a bunch of times before moving onto the next skill. Like 10 repetitions of passage A, then 10 reps of passage B, and 10 reps of passage C (i.e. aaaaaa bbbbbb cccccc).

Random practice, on the other hand, would involve alternating between several skills a little more frequently, like 3 repetitions of passage A, then 3 reps of passage B, and 3 reps of passage C, and then A again, B again, C again, and so on (i.e. aabbcc aabbcc aabbcc).

The benefit of blocked practice is that you generally achieve a higher level of performance during practice. But, there’s a tendency for those practice gains to fade away, so you don’t perform quite as well when you’re tested a day (or week) later.

With random practice, on the other hand, your gains during practice tend to be more modest. However, more of those practice gains stick, and you generally see higher levels of performance (compared to blocked practice) when tested some time later.

Not very flexible

The problem though, with devoting a preset number of repetitions or a block of time to working on one passage, is that it’s not very flexible, and doesn’t take your success rate into account.

Like, what if I tell my daughter to do 10 repetitions of a tricky sequence in measure 85, with the goal of playing that section at tempo without missing any notes – and she nails it on the third try? Should she do 7 more repetitions just because? Or move on?

Conversely, what if she gets to the 10th repetition, and she still hasn’t gotten it right? Should she stick with it for a while longer until she gets it correct at least once? Or move on and come back to it later?

A better way?

One approach to practice that has begun to get some research attention is the win-shift/lose-stay (WSLS) approach. This is more flexible than a traditional blocked or random schedule, because the number of repetitions you do is dependent on your performance. When you perform the skill successfully, you move on. When you don’t, you try it again.

Which means that on an easier skill, it might take you 3 repetitions to get it right. On a more difficult skill, you might need 10 (or 20 or 30) repetitions.

In theory, this makes a lot of sense. Because you’d be adapting your practice to the skills that need the most work, and devoting your time accordingly. Instead of spending excess time and repetitions on passages that don’t need a lot of work.

So let’s see what the researchers found when they compared this approach to blocked and random practice.

A basketball study

36 volunteers with about a year of basketball experience, were recruited to participate (Porter, Greenwood, Panchuk, & Pepping, 2019).

They were randomly assigned to one of three training groups – a blocked group, a random group, and a learner-adapted group.

Everyone started out with a baseline test of 20 shots. This involved taking five shots from each of four different locations on the court (L1, L2, L3, L4 below), in random order. Each location was from a different distance, and a different angle to the basket, which added to the difficulty of each shot.

From Porter, C., Greenwood, D., Panchuk, D., & Pepping, G.-J. (2019). Learner-adapted practice promotes skill transfer in unskilled adults learning the basketball set shot. European Journal of Sport Science, 1–11.

Over the next few weeks, the participants had six practice sessions, where they practiced shooting from the same four locations. Everyone took the same number of practice shots over the six practice sessions – 60 per practice session. But the structure of their practice sessions was quite different.

The blocked group, for instance, took 15 consecutive practice shots at a single location before moving on to the next spot.

The random group, on the other hand, switched locations after every shot, following a predetermined random order.

The learner-adapted group followed the same random order as the random group – but instead of moving to a new location after each shot, they switched locations only if they made the shot. If they missed, they stayed put and kept practicing until the shot went in.

Three tests

After their sixth and final practice session, they took another test, just like the first one, with 5 shots from each of the 4 locations.

And to see how stable their improvements were, everyone retook the shooting test a week later.

In addition, they were asked to take 10 shots from the free throw line – to see if their improved shooting skills would transfer to a shot that they hadn’t practiced.

So how did they do?

Results

Well, as a whole, the participants did improve over the course of training.

But there were some important differences between the groups.

Learner-adapted

The learner-adapted group, for instance, performed well on the “transfer” test – making a higher percentage of shots from the free throw line than they did on shots in their baseline test.

But their shooting percentage on the shots that they actually practiced stayed mostly unchanged from the first test to the last. I mean, there was a slight improvement in their average shooting percentage, but it wasn’t statistically significant.

Blocked

The blocked group, on the other hand, not only performed significantly better on the transfer test of free throws, but improved their performance on the other shots as well.

Random

Whereas the random group improved their shooting percentage on the primary shooting test, but not on the free throw test.

Hmm…so what are we to make of this?

Takeaways

Well, the study is a little tricky to interpret, because the participants weren’t skilled basketball players, and shooting a basketball is a pretty complex skill.

So it’s very possible that the results would have been a little different if the study looked at more advanced players, who were honing or refining already well-developed skills, instead of practicing relatively new and undeveloped skills.

Nevertheless, I think there are still a few key things we can take away from the findings.

Takeaway #1

The learner-adapted WSLS approach may not be the best strategy for learning new skills.

Why?

Well, for one, having to move on just as you finally perform a skill correctly may make it difficult for the little adjustments you made to really sink in. It’d be like struggling to get a shift in tune, and as soon as you do, having to move on to the next item on your to-do list instead of taking a few more repetitions to reflect on what just happened, and what you might have done right.

Takeaway #2

Blocked practice, on the other hand, might be the more effective strategy in the early stages of learning a skill.

Because whether it means allotting a certain amount of time, or a certain number of repetitions to a particular passage, blocked practice would give you time to get a “feel” for the section, and get the notes into your fingers. And not be forced to move on to a different section just when you’re starting to get the hang of things.

Indeed, the research on “overlearning” suggests that there can be benefits to doing multiple repetitions past the point of achieving success.

And the researchers themselves wondered if it may have been more effective to have participants move on after two consecutive successful attempts, rather than just one successful attempt. Much like in music education professor James Byo’s “work place” practice method.

Takeaway #3

Once your new skills become more reliable, blocked practice, and practicing the same thing over and over may become less helpful.

And perhaps this is where random practice and even the win-shift/lose-stay approach could be most helpful. When you get to the point where you no longer need as many repetitions to reach the desired level of performance.

Because at that stage of learning, the goal of practice isn’t so much to develop new skills, but to practice retrieving those skills on demand. And honing your ability to play a passage exactly the way you want the first time, not the 2nd or 3rd time.

So at the end of the day, it seems that there may not be a single one-size-fits all “best” way to practice. But instead, a variety of different strategies and tools that we can choose from, and apply to the right problem at the right time.


Reference

Porter, C., Greenwood, D., Panchuk, D., & Pepping, G.-J. (2019). Learner-adapted practice promotes skill transfer in unskilled adults learning the basketball set shot. European Journal of Sport Science, 1–11.