Empty Practice Syndrome

Empty Practice Syndrome

“Empty Practice”

Students may interpret practice differently to teachers. Students may report practising large amounts during a week, however, there seems to be little progress. These students may be engaged in “empty practice syndrome”.  Empty practice is practise which lacks goals, self-regulation strategies, deliberate practice strategies, and focussed attention. In contrast, formal practice has all of these features and is linked to musical achievement (McCormick & McPherson, 2003; McPherson & McCormick, 2006; Sloboda, et al., 1996).

In a recent research study of practise quality, Bonneville-Roussy and Bouffard (2015) explored the concept of formal practice. Their model of formal practice was a latent construct of deliberate practice, self-regulation, goal directed, and focussed attention. The authors argue that time alone is an insufficient predictor of musical achievement simply because the quality of practice is low.

Self-regulation is the use of metacognitive strategies related to planning, goal-setting, self-assessment, and control over environment to achieve a successful outcome (Zimmerman, 1994; Zimmerman, 1998). Deliberate practice is goal-directed practice aimed at improving performance. It is effortful, requires determination, and concentration  (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993).

Separately, deliberate practice and self-regulated practice strategies have been shown to be predictors of musical achievement (Ericsson, 2008; Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993; Hallam, 2011; Hallam, et al., 2012; Miksza, 2012, 2013). In the case of deliberate practice, Hambrick et al (2014) found that 70% of the variation in achievement was explained by other factors. Deliberate practice alone is insufficient to predict achievement.

Bonneville-Roussy and Bouffard (2015) constructed a model of formal practice based on a combination of self-regulation, deliberate practice, focussed practice, and goal directed practice. Furthermore, the authors’ conceptual framework included perceptions of competence and intrinsic motivation as part of a motivational profile a musician requires in order to link amount of practice time to formal practice (practice quality). Perceived competence refers to a musician’s belief in their own musical ability. Perceived competence is a component of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997) which have been linked to academic achievement (Anderman & Dawson, 2011; Bong & Skaalvik, 2003; Pajares, 1996; Schunk, 1989)

Empty practice syndrome
Formal Practice Model
Bonneville-Roussy, A., & Bouffard, T. (2015). When quality is not enough: Disentangling the roles of practice time, self-regulation and deliberate practice in music achievement. Psychology of Music, 45(5), 686-704.

Beginner musicians have been shown to lack the necessary skills for formal practice. Up to 90% of their practice time may be informal and not contributing to musical progress (McPherson & Renwick, 2001). Effective practice and use of beneficial practice strategies increases with level of expertise (Hallam, et al., 2012).

Bonneville-Roussy and Bouffard (2015), in their study of 177 college music students, found a significant link between deliberate practice strategies and age. Younger musicians tended to use more informal practice strategies than older musicians. In their standard regression model in which the variables are regressed separately, the authors found self-regulation and deliberate practice strategies were positive predictors of musical achievement. Goal-directed practice, self-perceptions of musical competence, and weekly informal practice were not predictive of musical achievement. Weekly practice time was negatively related to musical achievement. This model explained only 13% of the variance in musical achievement.

When the proposed model made of the latent variable “formal practice” was analysed, the results were much different. Formal practice was found to be a significant predictor of musical achievement. Formal practice in this model consisted of self-regulation, deliberate practice, goal direction, and focussed attention. A strong link was also found between weekly practice time and the latent variable of formal practice.

In sum, Bonneville-Roussy and Bouffard (2015) found formal practice strongly predicted musical achievement. Self-Perceptions of musical competence had an indirect effect on formal practice via practice time. Importantly, practice time alone negatively predicted musical achievement. Overall, the model explained 18% of the variance in musical achievement and 36% of the variance in formal practice. The study results show that the latent model of formal practice developed by the authors, predicted musical achievement well above each the constructs of deliberate practise and self-regulation alone predicted.

It is important to understand that practice habits can develop early and quality of practice is predictive of musical achievement. The authors suggest that without formal practice as developed in this model, musicians will plateau very early on. The implications for teachers are to recognise the transition period of a student when they are at this plateau, and to intervene to create and teach more effective practice strategies and routines. Simply stating to a student they need to do more practice is detrimental to their musical progress and success, and may lead them to adopt ineffective practice routines, recalling in this study, practice time along was negatively related to musical achievement.

What is occurring during practice time is subjective. Teaching students to have specific goals in mind, practice only when in full concentration, adopt specific strategies to solve specific problems, make practice thoughtful and effortful, are important concepts to integrate into a students’ practice time to avoid the “empty practice” syndrome.


Empty Practice Syndrome

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