We have all heard the old adage of “practice makes perfect”… maybe even “perfect practice makes perfect”. But there is something about the way that we practice skills that matters when it comes to skill transfer and long-term retention. For years researchers have known that skills can be learned through either blocked practice or random practice

So what is the difference between the two and which practice is more effective for skill learning?

In blocked practice individuals rehearse the same skill over and over until some improvement is seen. This is commonly done in skill drills where players practice a single skill numerous times before moving on to the next drill.

On the other hand, random practice involves practicing multiple skills in a random order with minimisation of the number of consecutive repetitions of any one skill.

Research investigated which form of practice was more beneficial. Shea and Morgan (1979) conducted a test in which subjects practice three different tasks (A, B, and C). The experiment involved responding to a stimulus with a correct series of rapid hand movements, with each task having a predetermined sequence. There were two experimental groups; one group that used block practice and one that used random practice. The blocked practice group completed all tasks in order, completing all of task A practice before moving onto task B which they completed before moving to task C. The random practice group practiced the tasks in no particular order just that no more than two consecutive trials could occur for any one task. The results of the experiment were split into an acquisition and retention phase. For the acquisition phase of the experiment the block practice group performed better. However differences during acquisition cannot be interpreted as differences in learning. Instead, retention tests are needed to evaluate learning.   In the retention tests, the results indicated that it was the random group that performed better on the retention task thus suggesting that random practice is more effective in the learning of motor skills.

But why is random practice more effective?

One possible reason for the success of random practice stems from the elaboration hypothesis. This hypothesis states that when a learner performs a series of separate skills in a random order, the learner are able to compare and contrast the different skills and as such recognise the similarities and differences between the skills.  By understanding and feeling how each movement is distinctive, the learner is able to store the movement more effectively within their long term memory.

Another possible explanation as to why random practice is more effective is the action plan reconstruction hypothesis (or the Forgetting Hypothesis).  Lee and Magill (1983) suggested that when the learner switches from task A to task B, the “solution” that was generated (in short term memory) for performing task B causes the previously generated solution to task A to be forgotten. When task A is encountered again a few trials later, the learner must generate the solution anew; this leads to a relatively poor practice performance. However, this solution generation process is assumed to be of benefit to learning (Cuddy & Jacoby, 1982). In a blocked practice, the solution generated to the first trial is simply applied to the next trial, thus reducing the number of times that the learner must generate new solutions. Given this, practice performance for blocked trials is effective as once the solution is generated s remembered for a number of trials.  However, learning is poor as the learner is not required to generate a new solution to the task for every trial. Given this, the key focus of the forgetting hypothesis is that new solutions are required frequently in random practice but not in blocked practice. Hence the development of the solution for the task is the key feature that facilitates learning.

Research has provided evidence supporting both the elaboration hypothesis and the forgetting hypothesis; but a clear “winner” has yet to emerge.  As a result, it is probably best if these hypotheses are considered as complementary rather than competing explanations of block versus random practice.

In conclusion the beneficial effects of random practice may be due to several factors:

▶ Random practice forces the learner to become more actively engaged in the learning process by preventing simple repetitions of actions.

▶ Random practice gives the learner more meaningful and distinguishable memories of the various tasks, increasing memory strength and decreasing confusion among tasks.

▶ Random practice causes the learner to forget the short-term solutions (from working memory) to the movement problem after each task change.

▶ Forgetting the short-term solution forces the learner to generate the solution again on the task’s next trial, which is beneficial to learning.

ReferencesShow all

Cuddy, L.J., & Jacoby, L.L. (1982). When forgetting helps memory: An analysis of repetition effects. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 21, 451-467.

Lee and Magill (1983)

Lee, T. D. and Magill, R. A. (1983). The locus of contextual interference in motor-skill acquisition.

Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 9,730–746

Shea, J. B. and Morgan, R. L. (1979). Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory , 5, 179–187.