More practice cuts down on unnecessary movements and eliminates wasted energy, a new study shows.
By Annie Murphy Paul

Why do I have to keep practicing? I know it already!”

That’s the familiar wail of a child seated at the piano or in front of the multiplication table (or, for that matter, of an adult taking a tennis lesson). Cognitive science has a persuasive retort: We don’t just need to learn a task in order to perform it well; we need to overlearn it. Decades of research have shown that superior performance requires practicing beyond the point of mastery. The perfect execution of a piano sonata or a tennis serve doesn’t mark the end of practice; it signals that the crucial part of the session is just getting underway.

New evidence of why this is so was provided by a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience earlier this month. Assistant professor Alaa Ahmed and two of her colleagues in the integrative physiology department at the University of Colorado-Boulder asked study subjects to move a cursor on a screen by manipulating a robotic arm. As they did so, the researchers measured the participants’ energy expenditure by analyzing how much oxygen they inhaled and how much carbon dioxide they breathed out. When the subjects first tackled the exercise, they used up a lot of metabolic power, but this decreased as their skill improved. By the end of the learning process, the amount of effort they expended to carry out the task had declined about 20 percent from when they started.

Whenever we learn to make a new movement, Ahmed explains, we form and then update an internal model—a “sensorimotor map”—which our nervous system uses to predict our muscles’ motions and the resistance they will encounter. As that internal model is refined over time, we’re able to cut down on unnecessary movements and eliminate wasted energy.

Over the course of a practice session, the subjects in Ahmed’s study were becoming more efficient in their muscle activity. But that wasn’t the whole story. Energy expenditures continued to decrease even after the decline in muscle activity had stabilized. In fact, Ahmed and her coauthors report, this is when the greatest reductions in metabolic power were observed—during the very time when it looks to an observer, and to the participant herself, as if “nothing is happening.”

What’s going on here? Ahmed theorizes that even after participants had fine-tuned their muscle movements, the neural processes controlling the movements continued to grow more efficient. The brain uses up energy, too, and through overlearning it can get by on less. These gains in mental efficiency free up resources for other tasks: infusing the music you’re playing with greater emotion and passion, for example, or keeping closer track of your opponent’s moves on the other side of the tennis court. Less effort in one domain means more energy available to others.

While Ahmed’s paper didn’t address the application of overlearning to the classroom, other studies have demonstrated that for a wide variety of academic activities–from recalling vocabulary words to solving math problems–overlearning reduces the amount of effort required to carry out the job at hand.

“The message from this study is that in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems the task has been learned,” says Ahmed. “We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.” In other words: You’re getting better and better, even when you can’t tell you’re improving—a thought to keep you going through those long hours of practice.

Annie Murphy Paul, the author of Origins, is at work on a book about the science of learning.
  • KeyToReading

    This research applies to learning handwriting, keyboarding, sightword recognition, decoding skills development. People with dyslexia may need more time to internalize skills to mastery.

    • Anon

      Someone needs to tell the ignorant coaches who keep posting this as justification to working kids to the point of injury and making them still compete w/those injuries!

  • There is never to much practice,expect at least 10.000 Hours of hard work in your field to achieve mastery.Its never to late to learn something new,but you must really set priorities the older you get.

  • Duana  Best argument I’ve heard for *not* making your kid into a prodigy…


    What about task specific focal dystonia? Isn’t that an example of over-practice?
    It is clear to me that professionals, music or athletic, that make a task ‘look easy’ are not tricking us. They have simply found the easy way to perform their art. But there is surely a point of diminishing returns. I have dystonia and like Leon Flesischer or Gary Graffman’s right hand or Diane Rehm’s vocal chords I know that over use played a major role. Five hours a day is too much.

  • Joe244

    Great article, thank you!

  • HKS

    When my daughter saw the title for this article, she said, “It should be, How Little Practice is Too Little.” As a Suzuki violin teacher, I appreciate having scientific research that backs up what we have been doing for years.

  • FCM

    And this is why we need to continue gutting the humanities in favor of research sciences.  So we can prove, EMPIRICALLY, that the humanities had a point after all… oh jeez….

  • Mendelij

    This is great support for the literacy coaching model which assists teachers in practicing sound instructional strategies. The more a teacher implements constructivist/inquiry -based lessons, the methods will become a natural part of his/her classroom. One-shot professional development classes don’t work unless the teacher uses the strategies over and over again, which is where a great literacy coach can help.

  • Janis

    Somewhat skeptical — again, this sort of mentality WILL fall into the trap of just mindlessly chattering away on something and hoping that it magically gets better, instead of the very deliberate practice that is shown to make a real difference.  If you don’t take explicit steps every single time your kid sits down at the piano/pick up the violin/guitar/whatever, to make sure that they are NOT going on autopilot and expecting mindless rote repetition to result in improvement by magic, that’s how this will be interpreted, and it won’t make them good musicians.

  • Gwgribbons

    this is boring

  • bailey

    get a life

  • deserteacher

    Progressive improvement through practice eliminates the threat of ‘drill and kill.’

  • Chris Byron

    This is how music has devolved into competition. Rather than you practice so you can play with your parents at a kitchen party, you practice so you can impress them at Kiwanis. What is the point of playing if it’s just to beat the other kid?

  • Anon

    Coaches who require their kids to compete injured should not be retweeting stuff like this. Shame on them! You aren’t gonna give a rats a** when they’re 25 and can’t function properly bc you made them compete w/a broken toe or torn tendon/ligament.

  • Gowtham Raj

    This doesn’t make sense. This is what machines doing and the outcome will be the same. This will dump the kids creativity and imagination. We must try to make them good human rather an extraordinary robot.

  • Michael Griffin

    I’m surprised by the negative comments to this article. It doesn’t talk about ‘auto pilot’ or suggest that this is the full story, as some people suggest. Rather, it confirms what we in the musical-skill world know, that 1) repetition is crucial to making strong new brain connections that co-ordinate muscle movement, and 2) most learners under-estimate the number of repetitions required to secure learning. Further learning could explore the nature of repetition – variable repetition and spaced repetition. You can learn more from ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’ available from Amazon.

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