Blocked and Spaced Repetition

Recently I was watching television when a commercial break interrupted my program. Commercials are annoying at best, but this set of five commercial spots really got under my skin. This is because one of the commercials played three times, not in a row, but with a different commercial in between. Just when I had forgotten it, back it came to haunt me. And I thought rondo form was just a musical concept!


The repeated commercial A was deliberately interspersed with other commercials. The arrangement was cleverly designed to make me forget and retrieve, and I found it difficult to dislodge the commercial from my attention for some time afterward. I had to acknowledge that this marketing technique was really successful. I had ‘learned’ the commercial. Maybe I can turn this irritant to my advantage.
German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus famously revealed the forgetting curve, proposing that students forget 90 percent of what they learn within thirty days. Further to this disheartening finding, the most significant memory loss occurs within the first hour. A memory becomes more robust when the information is repeated in timed intervals. The more repetition cycles, the better for learning, and the more spaces between the repetitions, better again.
Imagine you have thirty minutes available for practice and have decided on three passages on which to work. How would you distribute this amount of time? You could practise the target passages in three blocks consecutively.

Passage A—ten minutes
Passage B—ten minutes
Passage C—ten minutes

Or you could practise them in the following manner.

Passage A—four minutes
Passage B—three minutes
Passage A—three minutes
Passage C—four minutes
Passage B—five minutes
Passage A—three minutes
Passage C—six minutes
Passage B—two minutes

The first method is referred to as blocked repetition. The second, like the television commercial example, is known as spaced repetition. Blocked repetition refers to sticking to a single practice task until it is effectively learned then progressing to the next learning task. Spaced repetition switches between different tasks during the course of a single practice session. In both methods one encounters the same material for the same amount of overall time, but as with the distributed practice concept, spacing the repetitions exposes one to learning the task repeatedly over a longer time span.

Blocked repetition is a useful technique for introducing new skills to create a foundation. It is effective for beginners as it allows them to concentrate on a single task. Even for advanced musicians, very difficult passages require a single focus and attention that might be disrupted if one switches frequently between tasks. However, blocked repetition requires the intense engagement of the learner. If concentration wanes during blocked repetition, progress can stagnate and possibly deteriorate. It is essential to remain attentive and fully alert during practice.

Provided that the practice time is not restricted, and that the learner has the metacognitive ability to determine practice goals, spaced repetition is more effective than blocked repetition. Varying practice tasks frequently creates interference, which leads to a degree of forgetting. As with distributed practice, the benefits of spaced repetition relate to stronger memory formation due to the principle of forgetting and retrieving. When one revisits learning material a neural reconstruction takes place leaving a deeper impression on the brain.

forget to learn

Spaced repetition can be frustrating because it involves more frequent failure and more mental effort, but the rewards are worth this extra effort. Marketing teams and musical learners use spaced repetition, as do professional athletes. For example, golfers are required to play shots of varying distances. Whereas blocked repetition drills require a golfer to hit many consecutive balls to one distance marker before practising another distance, spaced repetition alternates distance, replicating the real demands on the golf course. On one occasion at the British Open Championship I witnessed Tiger Woods practise in this manner. In skill-based endeavours, drills can provide an illusion of competence. Most teachers have heard their students say, “But I could play it yesterday!”

Spaced repetition can work in concert with blocked repetition, so music teachers should model how a practice session might alternate between the two. Practice technique also should be modelled to students in ensemble rehearsals. In any given rehearsal, I aim to revisit the passages that require the most attention at least three times throughout the rehearsal. I answer initial squawks from students (“But we’ve already practised that piece!”) by explaining the rationale behind spaced repetition. Teachers cannot expect students to integrate these learning concepts if they do not exhibit them in their own methodology. I have known some music students to successfully apply the principles of spaced repetition to other school tasks. Students love to learn how to learn better.

from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ by Michael Griffin

“A must buy for every music teacher and music student” – William Bruce, Guildhall School of Music and Drama, UK.

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front cover final

Public speaker, music education trainer, conductor and pianist. Author of 'Learning Strategies for Musical Success', 'Bumblebee: Rounds & Warm-ups for Choirs', and 'Modern Harmony Method'.

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Posted in Music Education
2 comments on “Blocked and Spaced Repetition
  1. educationalist04 says:

    Reblogged this on The Learning Renaissance and commented:
    Some insights from Michael Griffin on Learning Strategies…

  2. […] Here is another great article on the topic: Click Here To Read […]

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