So, you want to master that piece of music, that phrase, that lick, that scale idea, that solo? You want to learn it deeply, so it becomes entrenched in your memory for years to come, effortless to recall?
Well, just keep practising the same thing again and again until you nail it, right? That’s what traditional teaching ideas would tell you. But while there is something to be said for repeating something again and again to get it into your muscle memory (especially accurate repetition), long term memory is actually much more nuanced than that.
So say Brown, Roediger III and McDaniel in their new book, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning.
They argue that learning in such a narrowly focused way yields only short term results. In order to retain information for the long term we have to keep coming back to it, approaching it in new and different ways. Here are some of their key ideas:
Spacing out your practice of a particular skill will consolidate the skill much more effectively than trying to get it down in a single practice session. The increased effort of retrieving the information from your memory each time you come back to it strengthens it. This certainly rings true for me – it makes sense that the effects of “cramming” for a music exam or performance won’t necessarily stick. A song I’ve played over a period of years, on the other hand, is entrenched in my memory.
The idea here is that mixing up the order of subjects or skills is much more effective than mastering one before you move onto the next. So rather than moving through skills 1 to 7 progressively, you might jump from skill 1 to skill 4, to skill 3, back to skill 1, then skill 7, etc. I can see how this might have long term benefits – it certainly seems that you can get to a point with repeating the same thing over and over where progress seems to slow. This approach feels somehow more organic.
The authors claim that varying your practice, rather than just drilling one skill, gives you a wider “movement vocabulary”, which enables you to transfer your learning to different contexts. So, to give a musical example, you might try different variations on a lick rather than just rote learning one lick. Or try going back and forth through different sections of a scale rather than playing it up and down the same way each time.
I’m definitely going to explore these ideas both in teaching and in my own practice. If you want to read more about the theories and experiments in the book this Salon article does a good job of summarising the ideas (Gladwell bashing aside!): http://www.salon.com/2014/04/20/ditch_the_10000_hour_rule_why_malcolm_gladwells_famous_advice_falls_short/