Blocked Practice vs. Random Practice: Shake Things up in your Training and in your Life

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By Dr. Allison Belger

You know the old adage “Practice Makes Perfect?”  My soccer coach in high school, who at the time held some serious records for most consecutive wins in high school soccer, always used to say that adage was a load of bull.  “Practice makes permanent,” he would argue.  Nothing earth-shattering, though at the time it was innovative stuff.  Then there’s the variation: “Perfect practice makes perfect.”  Again, nothing mind-blowing here—just another modification of the original.

But there is something about the way we practice motor skills that really matters when it comes to skill transfer and long-term retention.  It turns out that psychologists have known for decades that something called random practice is different from something called blocked practice, and the former is significantly better at leading to long-term skill retention and application than the latter.

Blocked practice is when a learner performs a single skill over and over, with repetition being the key.  Variance in training is minimized or nonexistent.  The learner then moves on to practice another discrete skill in the same way.  By contrast, in random practice, motor learners work on a number of different skills in combination with each other, randomly working trials and patterns of one and then the next and the next, with each trial interleaved on the previous one.  The random element means the learner is forced to be on his or her toes, not falling into a repetitive routine.  Blocked practice is marked by low levels of what is called cognitive interference, while random practice is marked by high levels of cognitive interference.  In simple terms, this means that random practice setups challenge the learner’s cognitive and motor systems to deal with the interference of each task on the next—an element that keeps him/her on his/her toes and allows for greater retention and skill transfer.

In a nutshell and without getting too complicated or technical here, it seems that repetitive blocked practice leads to a kind of rote learning that allows for better performance during training sessions but less skill transfer to competitions and novel situations, as well as lower retention levels over time.  One explanation for this is that there are lower demands on active problem-solving and engagement during blocked practice than during random practice.  During random practice, when one is forced to work through various skills in a single session that are presented randomly, one’s cognitive system must adapt, rethink, and solve the problem of choosing and executing appropriate motor patterns, upon demand.  This means determining similarities and differences among tasks before designating which motor pattern applies.  In contrast, during blocked practice with repetitive motor patterning, one can effortlessly rely on memory and automaticity of movement.

Because blocked practice leads to better performance during training sessions, athletes and coaches are often led to a false sense of confidence that is shattered during competitions, when predictability and rote learning are no longer guaranteed.  In an interesting study back in 2001 (Simon and Bjork), subjects who were trained using blocked practice were more likely to predict higher levels of future task performance than those who were trained using random practice designs.  According to co-author of the study, Robert A. Bjork, PhD, “It’s natural to think that when we’re making progress, we’re learning, and when we’re struggling and making errors, we’re not learning as well.  So people who are responsible for training can often be pushed toward training conditions that are far from optimal…The problem is that if people confuse the current sense of ease with learning, they’ll tend to prefer training conditions where things are kept constant and predictable—conditions that act as crutches to prop up performance without fostering learning” (quoted by Carpenter, 2001).

Richard Schmidt, PhD is renowned for his work in the area of the psychology of motor learning.  His book, Motor Learning and Performance: A Situation-based Learning Approach is loaded with information if you’re interested in the topic.  Schmidt has addressed the applications of random and blocked practice to all kinds of sports and learning situations.  Quoted in a 2011 article on golfdigest.com, Schmidt told attendees at the World Gold Fitness Summit that year “In blocked practice, because the task and goal are exactly the same on each attempt, the learner simply uses the solution generated on early trials in performing the next shot.  Hence, blocked practice eliminates the learner’s need to ‘solve’ the problem on every trial and the need to practice the decision-making required during a typical round of golf.”  This can apply to any number of athletic endeavors; the idea is that forcing athletes to come up with the best motor patterns given the nuances of the specific task at hand is imperative for long-term skill development that allows for flexible and adaptable motor recruitment in the heat of the moment, when competition and other variables are introduced.

The literature on this topic is deep and consistent: blocked practice is best for beginners learning new motor patterns and basic skills.  Once a certain level of mastery is involved, however, random practice seems to be the way to go.  This leads me to two questions:

1.  Does your personal sport training include random practice?

If your sport is CrossFit, you’re in luck.  Part and parcel of the CrossFit methodology is variance in training—rep schemes, movements, combinations, and other aspects of training are randomized, or at least varied significantly and with purpose.  However, if you are a competitive CrossFit athlete and you follow individualized programming, you might want to check in with your coach to be sure he or she is familiar with the principles of blocked and random practice.  Again, most CrossFit programs are inherently varied, but you should be sure that your skill sessions do not work the same exact movements over and over, without interleaving variations (e.g. portions of movements randomly ordered) that keep your cognitive and motor systems guessing.  In addition to interleaving skill variations, you might do things like changing bars for your gymnastics work during workouts (each set of pullups is done on a different bar, with variations in height, thickness, grip type, etc. with a special approach in gymnastics for kids).  If you only use women’s barbells, mix that up from time to time to keep your body guessing.  Do some of your toes-to-bars as toes-to-rings.  Leave your weightlifting shoes at home for your squatting workout.  There are plenty of ways to make your practice more “random,” and in a sport where the unknown is tantamount and the implements and playing field are constantly changing, it makes good sense to randomize in more ways than just by following programming that is inherently varied.

As noted above, these concepts apply to all sports and all kinds of training.  For example, for those of you who are golfers, be sure you are not practicing that same swing from the same spot with the same tee, over and over and over, without attention to variance.  See here for a nice write-up about random practice in golf: http://www.golfdigest.com/magazine/2011-03/kaspriske-fitness-column  You can find other sport-specific examples by searching the internet.  Have at it to be sure you’re challenging your system to recruit more than just some kind of automated response to routinized motor patterns.

2.  How can we apply these findings to life outside of the athletic training forum? 

Ah, the PsychologyWOD holy grail: applying sport to life.

It seems that we might envision blocked practice as being akin to the routines in our lives and the things we do automatically, without much thought or attention.  There is an ease to such activity, since it is routinized and automatic.  Maybe it’s the way we build our kids’ lunches by assembly line on the kitchen counter, or the way we take the dog for a walk while checking Facebook on our iPhones each morning.  Or maybe it’s the way we do the laundry or get our coffee or head out for a run on a route whose pavement we have pounded thousands of times.  There’s not much going on frontal-lobe-wise; it’s all rote activity we’ve done for ages.  For some of the stuff of our lives, this is perfect; we don’t need to reinvent the lunch-making wheel, and our walk with our dog is a necessity that need not be diversified to be enjoyed, or at least fulfilled.

But what happens when that kind of blocked practice functioning (for lack of a better term) permeates aspects of our lives that should entail more cognitive interference and should absolutely tax our systems—psychologically, hormonally, you name it.  Maybe now we’re talking about the way we walk into the door after a long day of work, throw down our bags, barely make eye contact with our family members, and plop ourselves in front of the TV.  Or maybe we’re talking about the job we dread, day in and day out, that is so stale and limiting after all of these years that it requires little to no creative effort.  Maybe, worse still, it’s the way we have come to interact with our partner or our children, in some kind of routinized way that we barely even notice anymore.  Each of these examples can be thought of as being caught in some kind of mindless state of functioning where cognitive interference is minimal.  It’s something like driving to a location to which we’ve been a million times; we get there on auto-pilot, without even realizing how we’ve managed to do so.

But what if we lived a life more characteristic of random practice?  What if we made sure to build in plenty of cognitive, emotional, and psychological interference and made sure we kept ourselves on our toes as often as possible?  What if–within the realities of schedules and logistics and responsibilities–we were to find ways of challenging ourselves and forgoing the easy routines.  Maybe we try out a new ritual for when we walk in the door and greet our loved ones at the end of a long day.  Maybe we change it up every Monday.  Maybe we dare to seek a different job, acknowledging that the one we have no longer feeds us in a meaningful ways.  Maybe we pour new life into our time with our kids on the weekends and challenge ourselves to do a different activity with the each month.  Maybe it’s some kind of randomization of the books we read or the places we go for dinner.  Maybe it’s being spontaneous and pursuing some kind of new learning twice yearly–you know, those cooking or knitting or foreign-language classes that are always on your mind, somewhere way down deep at a level about which you barely you know.

Do something crazy and spontaneous with your partner or a friend and make it a surprise.  Or do it by alone, just for you.  Randomize something about your life—mix things up–by design.  Just as random practice leads to greater retention and skill transfer, living in ways that shake up the every day and make your life less predictable and routinized just might make things more interesting and desirable long-term.  Much like we should do puzzles and word games as we age to keep our neural synapses firing, we should also consider making our lives less routine and more stimulating in the grand scheme, for the benefit of long-term growth, development, and outright happiness.  I get the constraints, the logistics, the realities. Throw yourself a bone: shake things up, People!

References:

Carpenter, S. (2001). A blind spot in motor learning.  APA Monitor: 32(6), p. 62.

Schmidt, R. A. &  Wisberg, C. A.  (2008).  Motor Learning and Performance: A Situation-based Learning Approach. Human Kinetics Publishers.

Simon, D.A. and Bjork, A.B. (2001).  Metacognition in motor learning.  Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning Memory and Cognition 27(4), 907-912.

Simpson, R. (2011).  Do’s and Don’ts of Practice: Why beating balls might not lower your scores.  http://www.golfdigest.com/magazine/2011-03/kaspriske-fitness-column

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