Skill Consolidation to Optimize Practice

I’m always looking around for research based ideas on how we can improve our pedagogy and practice. I came across this article a while back, bookmarked it, and then promptly forgot about it. It concerns research published in 2016 called Motor Skills Are Strengthened through Reconsolidation, published in the journal Current Biology.

The key to learning a new motor skill – such as playing the piano or mastering a new sport – isn’t necessarily how many hours you spend practising, but the way you practise, according to a 2016 study.

Scientist Have Found a Way to Help You Learn New Skills Twice as Fast

No big surprise there, we already know that how you practice is more important than what you practice or how long you practice. What I’m curious about is what practice strategies had the most benefit.

Recent evidence has shown that memories can be modified through reconsolidation, in which previously consolidated memories can re-enter a temporary state of instability through retrieval, and in order to persist, undergo re-stabilization.

Motor Skills Are Strengthened through Reconsolidation

Reconsolidation is the process where memories, including how to perform motor skills, are recalled and changed as new knowledge is (or motor skill development, in this case) are added. In order to ensure this is happening the materials or skill being practiced are subtly altered in subsequent practice sessions. In the paper quoted above the researchers used a specially designed computer mouse that worked through squeezing it. Test subjects were asked to practice moving the cursor on a computer screen using this unfamiliar mouse. After six hours they were asked to repeat it, but one group of the subjects were asked to practice it using a subtly different squeezing technique. These subjects ended up outperforming the group that practiced the exact same mouse technique.

The key, according to the researchers, is to mix up the practice in subtle ways, not drastically. There also needs to be a six hour gap between the initial practice and the subtly altered practice in order to give the brain enough time to consolidate the original practice.

It’s also important to note that this study only looks at a particular skill, moving around a cursor with an unconventional mouse. It’s not a slam dunk that a similar approach will work for practicing a musical instrument, but there’s also no reason to believe that it won’t.

How can we subtly alter the materials we’re practicing to achieve the reconsolidating effect? The closest analogue to the experimental design I can think of would be to practice on a different instrument, not necessarily a different instrument type. For example, I tend to select which trombone I practice based on whether I’m practice jazz or classical music, but when working on something like lip breaks or fretting patterns for jazz improvisation they could be practiced on my large-bore orchestral trombone instead. Another similar idea would be to practice on a different brass instrument altogether, say working on mechanical corrections to your embouchure on an instrument with a completely different sized mouthpiece.

There are obviously some other ideas that could provide a similar benefit. What thoughts do you have on how we can subtly alter our practice in order to maximize the benefits?