We all have moments in the practice room when our mind just wanders off like a 5-year old in a toy store and it’s difficult to keep our attention on the task at hand. But for those with ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), controlling attention and staying on task is a much more vexing and pervasive challenge.

A challenge which can interfere with learning, not just in the classroom, but in the practice room as well.

For instance, a recent study found that while folks without ADHD show gains in both speed and accuracy when tested on a task they practiced the previous day, those with ADHD exhibited a gain in speed, but a loss in accuracy.

We have all experienced the frustration of two steps forward, one step back. But imagine the feeling of taking two steps forward, only to find you’ve gone three steps backwards the next time you pick up the instrument. Yaaargh!

Why does this happen? And is there anything we can do about it?

Oh, and I know it sounds like we’re about to dive into research on ADHD, but I think you’ll find that it’s worthwhile (and relevant) reading whether you have ADHD or not.

Repetition, repetition, repetition

In general, getting more practice repetitions is a good thing that leads to greater learning of a skill (as in this article on overlearning). However, there is such a thing as too many repetitions. Because at some point, we begin to get fatigued (mentally and/or physically), which can lead to a drop in the effectiveness of our practice sessions.

And it seems that long, repetitive practice sessions can be especially unproductive for folks with ADHD. Largely, because the impulse control issues associated with ADHD can make it difficult to stay vigilant about the effectiveness of their practicing and avoid “piñata practicing.” Not monitoring how well things are going from one repetition to the next can lead to mindless, sloppy, “junk” repetitions, which can make for a low-quality practice session and a lot of incorrect repetitions, which only reinforces errors and bad habits (ala this).

So in this light, the above study – where ADHD participants’ accuracy got worse overnight – makes a lot of sense. If you start making more and more errors as a practice session drags onwards, and the accuracy of your playing starts trending downwards, it’s not so surprising that your playing the next day would tend to reflect that trajectory.

So what’s the alternative?

An ADHD study on motor learning!

A recent study sheds some light on this issue.

A group of 32 college students were recruited to learn a finger tapping task (which you’ve done something similar to, if you ever practiced a tricky passage away from your instrument by tapping out the fingerings on your thumb or arm).

Half of the participants met the diagnostic criteria for ADHD, and had been formally diagnosed with ADHD, but were not medicated. The other half of the participants had never been diagnosed or thought to have ADHD.

Tappy fingers

All 32 participants went through the same testing and training process. Specifically, they were taught a finger-tapping sequence, got 3 warm-up repetitions, and then took a test to establish a baseline level of performance.

And yes, the task does sounds simple, but the test was a little more challenging. While the task involved tapping one’s fingers in a particular sequence, the test involved tapping out that sequence “as rapidly and accurately as possible” for 30 seconds. The more finger taps in 30 seconds, the greater their speed score; the more mistakes they made, the lower their accuracy score.

After their pre-test, they were given 80 practice repetitions to learn the sequence, followed immediately by another test to see how much they improved as a result of practicing.

To see how stable their new skills might be, they were also tested 24-hours and 2 weeks after the training session.

Importantly, the researchers also conducted a study prior to this one, in which a matched set of ADHD participants went through the same exact testing and training protocol – except they completed 160 practice repetitions instead of 80.

Let’s take a quick look at that first.

Short practice session vs. long practice session

Participants in both the 80-repetition group and the 160-repetition group increased the speed of their performance from the first test to the last. But when it came to accuracy, participants in the shorter 80-repetition practice session made significantly fewer errors when tested 24 hours after their training session.

In other words, not only did practicing twice as long fail to help participants gain any additional speed – it actually made accuracy worse the next day.

So for those with ADHD, it seems that too many repetitions could actually hinder learning.

Hmm…so what happens when we compare the learning of ADHD and non-ADHD students? Might shorter practice sessions help equalize the learning process between those with ADHD and those without?

ADHD vs. non-ADHD

Looking at just the participants who completed the 80-trial practice session, both the ADHD and non-ADHD groups made significant improvements to speed, and performed at a comparable level of accuracy at the end of the training session. Yay!

And when tested 24 hours later, the ADHD participants effectively retained their speed, performing as well as their non-ADHD counterparts. Woohoo!

But perhaps more importantly, when engaged in the shorter practice session, the ADHD participants’ accuracy tended to improve during the 24-hours following training, just like their non-ADHD peers.

Overall, they did make slightly more errors than that of the non-ADHD participants, but the shorter session resulted in an equivalently speedy performance, and greater accuracy the following day than their counterparts who went through the longer 160-trial training session.

So what do we do with this information? What’s the perfect number of repetitions that maximizes our learning?

And the magic number is…

37! No, seriously, I hate to disappoint, but I don’t think it’s about counting repetitions or recommending half as many repetitions for students with ADHD as those without. I also don’t think the study suggests that folks with ADHD only need practice half as much (or that they can’t practice more).

I think it’s about knowing when to take a break. Knowing when you’ve reached that point in a practice session where you are no longer practicing productively. Whether you have ADHD or not, continuing to put repetitions in beyond the point where you can really monitor the accuracy of each repetition in a thoughtful and analytical way, reflect, and aim for better the next time, is probably not going to do a whole lot for your learning.

Which is not an excuse to call it quits for the day, of course! Just for the moment.