For More Perfect Practice, Try…Longer…PausesShare
Research suggests that we can learn skills more effectively, if we deliberately add pauses...between...practice...repetitions.
In theory, piñatas are terrific fun.
I mean, what’s not to like? A hanging cornucopia of sweets, opened in spectacular fashion by smashing with a stick while blindfolded? Good times!
Of course, the reality of piñatas is never quite as exciting as one might hope.
First off, there are tons of complete misses, glancing blows, and weak hits. Then the older siblings get into the act, but to no avail. And eventually, the host parent, with growing impatience and frustration starts whack, whack, whacking at the thing in a frenzy until finally the candy begins to trickle out.
Whether it's a cellist working on a tricky shift, a dart player making a throw, or a tennis player working on a serve toss, a similar thing can happen in our efforts to improve our skills as rapidly as possible.
We get a result that's off-target, so we stop, reset, and quickly try it again. But dang, we mess it up again, so with nary a pause to reflect upon what just happened, we simply dive back in, and try it again, and again, and again, (whack, whack, whack!) until finally we get something that's more satisfactory and move on.
This piñata approach to practicing often does lead to the desired result – eventually. But it comes at a cost. After all, we’ve just executed a skill incorrectly a bunch of times, and correctly only once. That’s a pretty underwhelming correct-to-incorrect ratio, and means we’ve had far more practice doing it wrong than doing it right (read this for a quick refresher on the importance of a positive correct-to-incorrect ratio).
So how can we improve our correct-to-incorrect ratio, learn more from each mistake, and get things up to par without creating lots of bad habits?
The value of the pause
Several researchers have looked at something known as the “inter-trial interval” or “post-KR delay” (KR stands for Knowledge of Results). This is the amount of time that elapses between one practice attempt and the next. For instance, if you’re practicing a tricky shift, you could just execute the shift over and over with no pauses between attempts. Or, you could try the shift, pause, and then try again (and pause again, try again, etc.). That pause between attempts is the inter-trial interval.
Honestly, I’m not sure I ever allowed for even the slightest pause between practice attempts when I was a kid. I totally piñata’d my way through every practice session. Heck, even in lessons I’d often cut my teachers off while they were still finishing their sentence in a rush to play the passage again and get it right.
I always assumed that learning happened during the time my muscles were moving. The idea that some of the learning might take place in the time between practice attempts never occurred to me.
Uhh…but how long are we supposed to wait between practice attempts? Are we talking an itty bitty short pause? Or a more substantial grand pause? Might there even be an optimal pause length between practice attempts for maximal learning?
A test of different pause lengths
A 2005 study in the journal Experimental Brain Research yields a few clues.
35 participants were split up into 6 groups, and given one practice session (and 25 practice attempts) to learn a tricky motor task. The only difference between groups was the amount of time each was given between practice attempts. One group received a 1 second pause between attempts, while the others were given either 5, 10, 15, 20, or 40 seconds.
The task was to move their index finger around in the air so as to manipulate a cursor and hit an on-screen target. Kind of like playing games on the original Wii. Except that their hand was hidden from view, and everything was 60 degrees off, so moving your fingers up would actually make the cursor move 60 degrees off-center. If that sounds easy, just rotate your trackpad or mouse 60 degrees and try clicking on the links in this article really quickly. Not so easy, eh?
Everyone got better with practice, but the participants who received only a 1-second pause between practice attempts consistently performed worse than the others, and weren’t as accurate in their efforts to hit the target. Simply because of a difference in the length of the pause taken between practice attempts!
24-36 hours later, everyone returned to the lab for a test to see how much of their finger pointing skills remained after a day of no further practice.
The test was simple. Just 5 attempts to perform the same exact task as the day before and hit the target.
As during training, the 5, 10, 15, 20, and 40-second groups all performed at about the same level. But once again, the 1-second group performed more poorly than the others.
The authors surmised that a 1-second break wasn’t enough time to process the information gleaned from each previous attempt, and get it into long-term memory. So even though they took the same exact number of practice trials as the other participants, the amount of learning the 1-second pausers were able to do between trials was reduced. Hence, the difference in performance during training, and their inferior performance on the test the following day.
More of the same
A 2007 study in the Journal of Neurophysiology also reported on this phenomenon.
Participants in this study engaged in essentially the same task, except instead of waving their finger around in the air, they used a “two-joint, planar manipulandum equipped with torque motors, rotary encoders, and force transducers.” And no, it wasn't really necessary to mention that, but by golly, isn’t that the most impressive sounding contraption ever?
Anyhow, the researchers in this study replicated the findings of the other study, finding that a longer delay between practice attempts led to more rapid improvements than a shorter delay (in this case, a 14-second-delay beating out a 4-second delay). They conducted a series of follow-up experiments and also found evidence suggesting that the performance improvement from trial to trial is due to the increased learning that can occur in the time following each error.
All in all, it seems that our gains in the practice room come not only from the learning that occurs during each practice attempt while we are moving our muscles, but also from the learning that occurs in the time between our practice attempts.
So while it’s not clear if there’s a “perfect” pause length, 5 seconds seems like a good length to try. Better than 1 second, but not so long that it interrupts the flow of your practice session.
It does take a bit of discipline to get in the habit of pausing for a moment between practice repetitions. But give it a try. Don’t just piñata through your practice session.
Take your time. Pause. Ponder and actively reflect on what just happened (rather than spending the time mentally counting to 5). Plan your next move. And make the next attempt even closer to the mark.
A version of this article originally appeared at The Bulletproof Musician.