Reference: Laura A. Stambaugh. "When Repetition Isn’t the Best Practice Strategy: Effects of Blocked and Random Practice Schedules". Journal of Research in Music Education. January 2011.
This article investigates effects of different practice techniques on performance accuracy and retention. Stambaugh compares between two different techniques: Blocked practicing and Random Practice schedules. Blocked practicing is essentially practicing the same thing for a blocked period of time (example she uses is: 111 222 333), compared to Random Practice Schedules which the learner is constantly switching tasks (ex: 123 231 312). In studies, it is shown that blocked practicing is more effective for immediate performance, but that random practice orders help facilitate long-term recollection and memory retention.
She mentions something called contextual interference, which has to do with the number of interruptions we get while doing a given task. In blocked practice, there is a low level of interference, as the individual is focused on one task for a period of time, while in random orders there is a high level of interference as the person is moving attention from task to task. Basic results of a study that she conducted found that blocked orders is best at acquisition, while random orders are supportive of a greater degree of retention. Although there are some inconsistencies in the studies done thus far, it is still speculated that more research needs to be done in the area of contextual interference.
To put these practice orders to the test, Stambaugh took these techniques to a group of seventh-grade musicians to see the effects on retention in a 24-hr retention test. From this study and reviewing other work, they concluded the following:
1. Students in blocked condition will perform more accurately, faster, and more steadily at the end of practice (acquisition) (p.370)
2. Students in the random condition will perform more accurately, faster, and more steadily at 24-hour retention and transfer testing (p.371)
She ultimately suggests that simply repetitive practice may not actually be the most effective way to practice, or to teach practice techniques at an educational level. She suggests that students learn to randomize their practice structures, and that students learn to self-regulate their practice as well. Although their study was quite specific to beginner musicians at a specific age, Stambaugh invites others to study other groups and suggests that similar results will be found.
As someone who has been in some form of musical training for most of my life, and now as a private music instructor, I found this article very interesting. I grew up playing piano and would probably say that the majority of the practice that I did was much more similar to what she calls blocking. I would do my scales for a half hour, do technique for a half hour, and then play through repertoire I was working on in solid blocks. I never had big issues with memorization (once I got myself to focus and practice regularly), but I did have problems focusing for that amount of time, and and I see the same problems exemplified in my students. Once I began voice lessons (in college), my practice habits did not change much from what they were in piano, I would warm up and then just work on repertoire for an hour- two hours every day. But again, had the same issues of focus and then remembering things because I had done it so much over and over.
I like her suggestion of random orders very much, and think it makes a lot of sense to both beginner and advanced musicians. Getting the information in as many different ways as you can is an important tool to develop as a musician, and being able to move from task to task. And sometimes what we think is the most productive for ourselves may in fact prove to be counter-productive in reality. In most parts of life, I think that efficiency is important, especially in the practice room, and this offers another tool to develop efficiency.
In her pedagogical implications for Music Education, Slambaugh suggests that beginner students learn to facilitate this kind of randomized learning/practice on their own. Although I do agree that it can be beneficial, I am not sure how exactly this begins to be implemented. Obviously if it is suggested and modeled by the teacher, but I think for some young students (5-7yrs old), even just sitting at the piano for longer than five minutes to practice and focus is a feat in itself. I do think that she offers some important insights into the way that musicians practice, and the importance of facilitating solid practice habits in our students based on the way our brains can retain information.