Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Learning Research Turns Music Teaching On Its Head

Make-it-stickA ten-year study of learning, just published 6 weeks ago, has come up with some surprising conclusions.   One is that drilling a passage of music over and over is not the way to master it.  For some students and teachers, this will come as a shocker!

Below I’ll discuss details about the book, its authors, and a link to a summary article online, but let’s get into the meat.

It turns out that working in a focused way on one thing yields results, but they’re only temporary.  One example is the way someone might cram for a test and get by, but then forget most of the material soon after.  But it applies to learning music or any other subject as well.

A couple of other strategies work much better than single-minded practice, if the goal is mastery and long-term results.  One pathway to good retention and understanding is to spread out practice over spaced intervals.  The effort involved in retrieving the learning during each practice session reinforces the memories in the brain and builds a stronger skill.

Another helpful strategy is to mix up several different tasks or types of tasks, and to alternate working on them rather than focus on only one.  This kind of learning again forces the learner to work a little harder to remember each item or skill, which strengthens the learning and retention.

Tests by the researchers compared people working with a single focus and those who mixed their studies.  An interesting process emerged:   at first, the single focus people learned more, but later on, in the long run, the mixed-study learners retained more than twice as much as the single-focus learners.

This suggests that music students and teachers should not expect to work hard to accomplish one goal before moving on to the next, but should rather work on several musical pieces and exercises, and might even consider moving on to a new piece before mastering the old one, and then coming back to the old one later.  I have often found that drilling one skill at a lesson yields diminishing returns, whereas moving on to something else and coming back to that skill can work wonders.  Similarly, working on a new piece of music often provides a useful perspective for improving the previous piece.

The studies indicate that the amount of effort put into the learning has a direct bearing on the results, which is one reason why repetition is not as effective as grappling with several tasks in succession.  In fact, it appears that there is a limit to what the brain can handle when it comes to repetitive learning, whereas there is no limit to elaborative learning, which is the process of associating the skill you’re learning with stories, looking at it from different angles, breaking it up into meaningful parts, or playing games with it.

For teachers this means that repeating instructions to a student won’t be as effective as presenting something in various contexts, using imagery, stories, or personal connections.

Speaking of learning effort, the study makes a very interesting observation about learning styles.  People who insist on learning according to the style most comfortable to them do not put in as much effort as those who are willing to work within various styles of learning, and they retain less as a result.  For example, someone who only reads music and never learns by ear, or vice versa, is limiting their learning capacity by staying within their comfort zone.

One of the book’s conclusions makes a strong case for why learners need a teacher:  they found that learners are very poor judges of when they’re learning well, and when they’re not.  Sometimes things don’t seem to be going very well and yet much is being learned.  A teacher can keep the student on track at such a time, when the student might otherwise be tempted to go an easier and less productive route.

The cognitive scientists who wrote the book teamed up with a storyteller in their work, because they decided to practice what they preach.  They present their work and conclusion in the context of stories, varying the subject as they go along, and revisiting each topic several times from different angles.  This in itself is a hint about what constitutes good teaching.

The book is called Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning, by Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel.  You can also read a summary article based on the book at this link on salon.com

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

12 Comments

  1. Robin Thomson

    The following passage underlines why the exam system (labouring over the same few pieces and techniques for a year until they are so ‘perfect?’ that they become lifeless and quire rightly probably detested) is such a poor way to go about learning instrumental music. I was taught to teach using the delve in for awhile and set aside until later process. It is stunning how the obstacles that existed for the student on the first reading disappear on the revisits. “Might even consider moving on to a new piece before mastering the old one, and then coming back to the old one later.”

  2. Scott

    This is really interesting. I started practicing in this way years ago, as it seemed to work better for me, and it’s fascinating to see that it’s true for all of us.

    I have no idea how to incorporate storytelling into the teaching of music, but that could be an interesting challenge as well..

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