Blocked verses random practice
The most common methods of practice for the musician is repetition. Practising has operational phases. Sections are chosen and given more attention (operate on). When complete, the learner moves on (exit), the next section is chosen and so on. Novices will consider a series of perfect receptions the stage at which to exit. This ‘blocked’ form of practice is assumed to be beneficial for learners, rather than switching from section to section which is termed random practice.
Research suggests that “contextual interference” or switching from one section to another during the same practice session is beneficial. Studies have compared practice which is high in interference with practice that is blocked, or low in interference. In these studies, the blocked practice group did achieve a more effective performance over the random interference group. The blocked learners learned at a faster rate and were able to perform them at a faster speed. However, when these groups were compared on retention and transfer tests, the random group outperformed the blocked group. It seems the gains made by repeated block practice are short lived.
Blocked practice can seem effective in the short term, for example, during a lessons, where the improvements are observable and quick. This is the type of practice style that is reinforced in instrumental lessons, but it may not achieve the lasting learning effects. Teaches and students associate repetitive practise with improvement, as that is what is observed during lessons.
There are two school of thought about why this occurs. They are the elaboration hypothesis and the reconstruction hypothesis. The elaboration view suggests that random practice promotes multiple information processions strategies. This creates more distinctive memories. The use of varied encoding strategies facilitates a more elaborate memory representation than blocked practice encoding and this is considered a learning advantage. The reconstruction view suggests that the interruption of the practice, in particular the motor practice, means it has to be reconstructed repeatedly. These repeated reconstructions are considered to be a learning advantage over blocked practice, where the motor practice has already been committed to short term memory.
The above descriptions highlights an area which is perhaps a mystery to teachers. A student during a lesson will improve on a section through many repetitions and yet, when they return for their next weekly lesson, those visible gains seem to have vanished. Performance is not learning. The teacher and student both believe the performance improvement they are observing through blocked practice is representative of learning. What is occurring is temporary storage of a motor skill in short term memory rather than effective long term memory reconstructions and elaborate memory associations.
There is a problem with the idea of blocked versus random practice.
Studies in blocked versus random practice have only been conducted on athletes in various sports. The results demonstrate random practice has longer lasting improvement gains that blocked practice. However it is food or thought for musicians, teachers and their students.
There are some issues to consider for instrumental learning. Musical repertoire can very complex and difficult to master in initial learning phases. It is believed that blocked practice during the initial learning stage is preferable to random practice. Blocked practice may be more effective when the complexity is high. There is evidence that advantages of random practice are lost when the performer is confronted with complex tasks. However, random practice may be more effective than blocked practice when the skill demands are low, such as when the repertoire is mastered or the repertoire is simple. Random practice is a preferable method for skill maintenance and memorisation. It is also believed that when concentration wanes during blocked practice, improvement may recede. This is called the ‘Penelope Effect’ (Attenmuller, 2006).
A practice routine which consists of blocked practice for initial phases of learning, and random practice for maintenance of skills, could be an area to consider for effective practice which produces long lasting improvements.