Learning One Thing at a Time Is Common Sense, and It’s Wrong

If you have two things you want to learn, what’s the best way to learn them? The intuitive answer would be to focus on learning one, then move on and learn the other.

After all, switching back and forth between them over and over would be a lot of work, right? No need to make things more complicated!

This reasoning is simple enough, but several decades of research have led to the conclusion that in many cases, it’s wrong! True, switching back and forth repeatedly between multiple things you’re trying to learn is more work, but that extra work can actually engage your brain more, helping you retain the things you’re trying to learn.

Psychologists call this phenomenon contextual interference. The basic idea is that alternating between things you’re trying to learn instead of tackling them one at a time is harder in the short-term but helps you remember what you’ve learned in the long-term.

This quirk in the way people learn was first noticed back in 1966 in an experiment that involved learning lists of words. However, a lot research since then has focused on how it applies to people learning new motor skills.

Most recently, a pair of researchers from Canada looked at whether contextual interference applies to people learning music. Their study, published in August, looked at how ten advanced musicians learned to play two excerpts of clarinet music.

Some of the musicians were asked to learn the piece using a technique called blocked practice. Blocked practice is the way musicians typically study pieces: it’s the common-sense approach were you focus on practicing one piece, then move on to the next when you’re done.

The other musicians were asked to learn using interleaved practice, the counterintuitive approach where you jump back and forth between multiple things you’re trying to learn.

When the clarinetists performed the pieces they’d learned for a panel of evaluators at the end of the study, it turned out that the ones who’d used interleaved practice received significantly higher ratings. The musicians who’d mixed it up instead of practicing one piece at a time learned the pieces better, at least if the evaluators (who didn’t know anything about how the musicians practiced) are to be believed!

This finding makes sense when you consider that contextual interference has been shown to help long-term retention especially. Retaining improvements made in practice sessions is a problem for musicians, so interleaved practice may be more efficient than blocked practice from this perspective.

Of course, music isn’t the only area where contextual interference applies. Other motor skills, like sports, and even some verbal skills may benefit from interleaved practice.

That isn’t to say that shuffling around between multiple things you’re trying to learn is the way to go in all situations. How much contextual interference helps varies depending on who’s doing the learning and what they’re trying to learn. But if you’re trying to get down a new skill, it might be worth experimenting with some of these paradoxical learning techniques and seeing how it goes!

Image: FreeImages.com/Tyson Battersby