Do you find the thought of practicing in 30-min to 1-h0ur blocks daunting? Me too.
Or maybe you really want to master a specific skill, so you practice it until you can do it without fail - all in one sitting. But, the next day or at your next lesson even, you find that you have forgotten what your practiced! And you tell your teacher - "this went better yesterday." I've been there. ;)
If this sounds like you, you've come to the right place!
Let's talk about how to improve your long term retention without having to resort to large blocks of time. Let's discuss "interleaved practice."
Blocked vs. Interleaved Practice
This scenario might sound familiar to you: You need to practice an etude and a solo, so when you practice, you start with the etude. Then, when you feel satisfied that you can play it well, you move on to the solo and proceed in the same fashion. And that's when you end your practice. You've just completed something called "blocked practice." It's a very common way to practice, and it's also probably what makes the most sense to you productivity-wise. For a quick picture, here's an example of blocked practice:
However, do you often feel as if you're constantly re-learning what you just practiced the previous day? This happens to be one of the frustrating conundrums of blocked practice. You might master a section of your solo in one blocked practice session, but the next time you pull it out, you are unable to play it as well as you could. Frustrating!
If this sounds like you - or maybe you just want to make your practice more interesting - why not try "interleaved practice?"
Interleaved practice is just a fancy term for breaking down your blocked practice sessions into smaller blocks, and then "interleaving" them together. As a quick example, here is what an interleaved practice session might look like:
Or, if you want to be even fancier, you can create much smaller time blocks:
As you can see, you're still devoting 30 minutes to the etude and 30 minutes to the solo, just as in the previous blocked practice example, but it's all mixed up. Pretty cool, right?
You might be thinking: "Okay, that's great and all, but why would I ever do this, Ashley?"
Well, it's simply because your brain loves it! How do I know this? Science.
The Science Behind the Curtain
There have been numerous studies on the effectiveness of interleaved practice versus blocked practice.
In one such study, subjects were asked to memorize vocabulary (word and definition) using a blocked practice style. In this study, it was referred to as "overlearning," because in this type of practice, the material is essentially "overlearned," or worked on until mastery is achieved. Through ten learning trials, the results showed that the benefits of overlearning increased short-term memory retention, but that the information was mostly forgotten after only four weeks! (Rohrer 2007: 184)
Therefore, overlearning is excellent for cramming, but mostly useless if the goal is to remember what you learned. Eek!
Don't worry, it has been proven that interleaved practice is the solution to this problem. Studies show that interleaved practice increases your long-term memory retention and helps you learn faster. (Rohrer 2010)
Why does it work? It has to do with the reactivation and abstraction of learned material.
First, when you're constantly switching between tasks, you must "reactivate" the information learned, by pulling it from your long-term memory storage. The interference of different tasks creates this need for reactivation, and results in the knowledge being further cemented in your long-term memory!
Second, your working memory - the one you use in the present moment - holds on to some information as you switch tasks. So, each time you reload information, your working memory compares (or abstracts) information from the first task to the second. Therefore, instead of learning one thing at a time as in blocked practice, your brain attempts to connect information together! This helps to improve your knowledge and long-term memory because your knowledge is actively applied to other scenarios. (Rau 2013)
Who wouldn't want to learn faster and be able to retain all the information too?! What are you waiting for? Start interleaving!
Not sure where to start? I can help.
Here's an example of my own interleaved practice schedule:
This is just an example. I usually write down my schedule by hand in my own practice notebook. :) You can see how I mixed up the task order for some extra fun! Under each task, I noted for myself the specifics, such as specific music sections and what I would focus on. Also take note that my time blocks are 4 minutes long - this is what works best for me!
So, I encourage you to create your own personalized method - whatever works for you! It's very helpful when using the interleaved method to keep track of what you do, so that it's easy to remember what you've already done. If you're anything like me, I cannot remember how many times I've worked on a specific piece unless I write it down....
Let me know how interleaved practice works for you. Happy practicing!
Make sure to check back next week for a special topic request by one of my lovely students - memorizing music! :D
Rau, Martina A., Vincent Aleven, Nikol Rummel. 2013. "Interleaved practice in multi-dimensional learning tasks: Which dimension should we interleave?" Learning and Instruction, 23: 98-114,
Rohrer, D., and Pashler, H. 2007. "Increasing Retention Without Increasing Study Time." Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16, no. 4: 183-186.
Rohrer, Doug, and Harold Pashler. 2010. “Recent Research on Human Learning Challenges Conventional Instructional Strategies.” Educational Researcher 39, no. 5: 406-412.