How we learn. That’s what we, as teachers, really want to know because it lets us know how to best teach.
I’ll preface this resource review by telling you it was super hard to keep this article from becoming a mini book in its own right. “How We Learn” by Benedict Carey was filled with so many stories from various studies & great insights that it was a little like trying to have only a little Häagen-Dazs chocolate salted fudge truffle non-dairy ice cream. You start out with good intentions & suddenly half the pint is gone (I really have no idea what happened).
So, grab a cup of your favourite beverage (or a big bowl of ice cream) & let’s figure out a little about how our students learn … & how we can best teach them!
Right brained vs. left brained … is it a thing?
Researchers have mapped that we definitely have “right brain” & “left brain” functions. And, within each hemisphere, we have many, many areas of speciality … that often work across our right AND left hemispheres at the same time. However, “as scientists put it, using our memory changes our memories.” (p. 20)
When I ask my students to define a particular symbol in their music, this explains why they may need to talk through the definition. As they look at the symbol, it triggers a memory, which triggers another, and another, and another. It’s why our beginning students, with all the initial information they’re learning, seem to only remember part of what they have been taught. They’re still sorting through all the separate pieces of information & working them into a coherent thought.
Put all those moments together & you have a vibrant, multi-sensory memory!
Why Forgetting Is Essential to Learning
Sometimes, we have to forget in order to move forward. Old passwords, old routes to a client’s home, ‘facts’ that have been proven wrong through more research, the list goes on. Other times, we need to forget a little to learn more when we review concepts. As an adult, I find I’m getting a lot more out of piano lessons than when I was younger. I’ve forgotten quite a bit over the interim years … my life experiences & subsequent learning have given me a deeper understanding than I ever could have as a teen.
What we DO know about forgetting is that the longer we go before using the information, the more likely there will be a discrepancy between the original learning & what we remember. In other words, yes, students should practice as soon as possible after lesson. Otherwise, it’s a high likelihood of hearing a student say, “Are you SURE that’s what I was supposed to practice?”.
Wait! I was supposed to remember that?
When we teach in a vacuum without context our brain tends to put the new information in the “don’t-bother-remembering-this” category. Remember those lists of music words/symbols & definitions? Turns out learning a list isn’t just boring, it’s probably going to be forgotten well before the next lesson. It also explains why a student may be able to name & define their dynamic markings but continue to play in monotone every time.
The ‘theory of disuse’ by the Byorks (a husband & wife team) explains a couple things even further. Once we deliberately learn something it doesn’t go away. But if you don’t use it, you’ll find it awfully hard to remember. Even a week is plenty of time to ‘forget’, making practice during the week so important.
This explains why it was so easy to remember an obscure musical term for the piano exam we studied so diligently for, but find it so hard to remember what it meant when finally seeing it for the first time 20 years later. And yet when we look up the term, we remember not only the definition, but what the teacher said when first teaching it, & perhaps the tip used for learning it. We never really forgot, we just misplaced it for a bit. (More information on this theory is on pages 35-41.)
Breaking the Routine
Every college & university student has a ritual when it comes to exam prep & exam day. I was a fan of studying with lots of fresh fruit, juice, & maybe crackers for a crunch … my husband thinks that’s just weird & insists Jolt Cola (all the sugar & twice the caffeine), M&M’s, & gum were the only way to study. On the day of the exam, I refused to look at my study notes or talk about the exam, brought a snack & water bottle, with extra pens, pencils & eraser. Other classmates of mine, however, would arrive at the exam with notes in hand frantically reviewing while pacing. We both thought the other was nuts. (And, until reading this, I really had no idea just how geeky I was in school. I mean, I knew. I just didn’t KNOW.)
Is consistency really best for learning?
The Oban experiment in 1975 seemed to suggest a yes. Granted most of us will not be learning underwater with a wide variety of sea life including psychedelic sea slugs & then returning to take an exam in the same environment. (I bet you are wishing you could read pages 48-49 right now, right?) However, further experiments have shown that changing up the learning environment keeps our brains engaged & creates those multi-sensory memories essential to learning.
What does this mean for our students? Perhaps we don’t need to tell piano parents that everyone should be quiet while their child practices. As long as the sounds are not so loud they distract the student, it seems to actually help learning. All those sounds of family life embed themselves subconsciously in the memories of learning … & make it easier to pull up those memories in the future.
For teaching purposes, the more ways a student is exposed & interacts with the same concept over a period of time the stronger the recall will be. The more varied practice time is (both in activities & the order those activities are done), the more efficient their practice sessions will be.
The Value of a Cyclical Approach
We all have students that cram their practice right before lesson. And, yet the research shows that the gains definitely do not match the rewards. Students immediately forget the information … after all, it never made it past the brain’s filter of what is worth remembering. However, when students space out their practice they remember far, far more. Even when that overall time investment is the same (p. 66).
And here is something interesting as you plan out the year, “to build & retain … factual information, it’s best to review the material one or two days after initial study; then a week later; then about a month later.” (p. 73). Multiple studies all have come to the same conclusion. By ever increasing the amount of time between reviewing facts or vocabulary, it takes less overall time to become proficient in the topic.
When Practice Wasn’t Enough
“But, I was able to play it perfectly during the week!” We’ve all heard it. Maybe even said it ourselves.
“The fluency illusion is so strong that’s once we feel we’ve nailed some topic or assignment, we assume that further study won’t help. We forget that we forget.” (p. 82)
When practice is easy, we have very little gain. It’s when we are actively looking for the parts that aren’t strong or that we struggle with that the most gain happens. It also is the most frustrating way to practice. I know because it’s the way I try to practice every time.
How Creative Thinkers Get It Done
It wasn’t until the early 1920’s when Graham Wallas published a book of his thoughts on thoughts (I promise I’m not actively trying to make puns, we’re just a pun-y family). He wanted to know exactly how creative thinkers got to their solutions. And, it appears he figured it out.
Creative thinkers tend to go through a certain process (p. 114-116):
- Preparation: First solution was rarely the best so they kept brainstorming solutions
- Incubation: They took a break when they got stuck
- Illumination: That moment when they are sure they have the solution
- Verification: Does it actually work?
During the week students need to solve the problems & challenges that come up during practice. As teachers, we can nudge students with our actions to help them figure out a solution & see the potential rather than just what is in front of them (for example using pencil crayons to make patterns in the music stand out). We can help them see biases … A student listens as you play a song. They hear a Section A, then a Section B. When they hear the third section, it starts off like Section A & they assume it is exactly the same. Yet how many method books change the last few notes of song for the ending?
Giving Nudges During the Week
My students have practice pouches. I’ve shown them how to use the different objects, but I’ve learnt the hard way that they tend to have a pretty narrow view of how those objects can be used. The die can be used for games or repetitions. The small notebook can be used for writing definitions or rhythms. The cute little eraser can be used to erase things or gracefully lifting your hand from the piano. You get the idea.
But, what if I ‘nudged’ my students to see other uses? What if I took away the fixed function of those same objects so students could see the potential? This led to a series of “5 Ways” prompts that got my students thinking about each object in their practice pouch or everyday objects they had at home in completely new ways. (
I’ll be sharing more about this in just a few weeks. Click here for more info.)
Interruptions Can Be a Good Thing
The process of incubation can repeat many times before a best solution is actually found. For some of my biggest projects, the total preparation & incubation periods were 1-2 years simply because it took that long to work out how they would work within a travel studio. Yet it still felt like time well spent because the end result for my students & clients was all the better.
Much like tv shows & books keep us wanting to find out what happens next, a hint of what is coming up keeps students eager to practice so they are ready for next lesson. When I’ve composed rote music for my students, they were highly focused on mastering each section because they eagerly looked forward to learning the next section. (These songs will be part of a collection I’ll release in October.)
When we have a goal, our brains are tuned into anything that relates to that goal. Perhaps you are interested in adding a unit on rhythm to your studio. Once it becomes a goal, we find all sorts of things pop up. A great book on how we learn rhythms, fun activities to internalize pulse (chcek), a street performer using everyday objects for their rhythmic show, the perfect video on your Facebook feed, two teachers are talking about rhythm at the music store as you pick up books … you get the idea. All the sudden, rhythm is everywhere!
There’s a New King in Town
Repetition was king for a long time. Now we are learning repetition without active participation really engrains habits instead of actually learning. But, where did this idea come from?
Let’s go to University of Ottawa (yay Canada!) in 1978. Robert Kerr & Bernard Booth did an experiment using 2 types of practice: focused (blocked) practice vs. varied (interleaved) practice. (pp.151-153) Varied practice showed a clear win, even though on the surface focused practice should have been the clear winner.
Do you or your students do things in the same order each week? It becomes easy to space out during at least part of practice or lesson, if we always follow the same format. And that means we aren’t interrupting the learning. (Remember that incubation phase takes place during a complete mental & physical break between practice sessions.)
During practice, students can control the different variables. During lesson time, students don’t typically control those variables. In some ways it can feel like a performance. Random practice has the advantage of being able to play under lots of different conditions & the different assignments get better because of it.
Strategies are great. But, how do we choose?
Often we give our students strategies for during the week. If you are not sure about a note in this song you could do this or this or this. But, are we teaching them how to choose an effective strategy? This is just as important, if not more important than having a bag of tricks to choose from.
We have seen this in our kids’ education, especially math. They had so many strategies that they had no clue which one to choose. Finally, we started drilling math facts so homework would take less time. It wasn’t that the strategies didn’t work. It’s that our kids had no clue which one was best for each problem.
One way that we can help our students effectively learn which strategies work best for each practice problems, is to interleave the strategies. Instead of using a particular strategy for a set period of time & then moving onto the next one, we would be better served teaching a new strategy & having a student practice with it during the week while they continue to use other practice strategies with other pieces.
The term “discrimination learning” came out a 1949 study by the Gibsons (a husband-wife team of psychologists). They realized our brains take a piece of information (say where a particular note is on the staff) & uses that to figure out those around it. Nothing groundbreaking, right? But, what if I told you that those landmark notes get chunked together (much like you would to remember a phone number) so the brain processing those notes on the staff faster?
So, how do we help students do this? One approach that could have great gains is “perceptual learning modules” (also known as PLM). When we want students at a glance to see the answer, this is a great option. Think of it as a flashcards race.
Show the card, the student has a set number of choices of what it could be. They have 5 seconds to choose. If it’s incorrect, give the correct answer & move on. If it’s correct let them know. Do this for a short period of time (say 5 minutes), then move on.
Here is the crazy part. The brain will start to categorize the information over time. It will make those snap judgements automatically without any further effort on the part of the student.
Sleepy Heads Don’t Make the Same Progress
What does sleep have to do with practice? Well, it forces us to take a break. And, remember those breaks (or incubation periods) were the ones that tended to have the biggest breakthroughs. A 2007 Harvard & McGill study showed that students coming back to material the next day had an impressive 35% advantage over the non-sleep group that came back to it later in the day (p. 204)!
There is some research that suggests stage 2 sleep (the one after REM sleep & also right before we wake up) is the one most important for motor learning (p. 207). So when our students don’t get enough sleep, they could very well be hampered in their ability to learn those technical skills we spend countless hours of lesson time on.
This is why I have no problems letting parents know (in a respectful way) when their kids probably aren’t getting enough sleep. Chances are it’s not just piano that is suffering. Just keep in mind that once they know, it’s out of our hands.
How We Learn
Remember how I said at the beginning it was super hard to shorten this article? This is the result of lots & lots of deleting after I agonized over what would help you the most. So, go get the book! It will be well worth the read as you look at how learning has changed (or in some ways has not really changed) since we first began as a species. I know it’s had me rethink how I will approach a few units of study this year with my students.
Let me know what you think of “How We Learn”. Was it just my geeky side that loved the research or did the stories draw you in as well? What will you be modifying about your teaching to take advantage of this research?