Is being good at practice a transferable skill?

Has it ever seemed like experts in one domain more easily become skilled in another? In this study, we were interested in whether having expertise in a specific domain – and the vast practice experience that comes with it – influences how experts choose to practice when learning new skills outside their area of expertise. The question of how to structure practice in order to maximize learning has received a lot of attention in motor learning research. It has been shown that when practicing multiple skills, it is beneficial for learners to adopt a varied practice schedule, where attempts at different skills (such as dribbling, shooting and passing in soccer) are interleaved. This schedule has been shown to be better for long term learning than ‘blocked’ practice schedules, where attempts at one skill are repeated frequently before moving onto the next skill. This benefit is most noticeable when skills are not too challenging and for individuals who have some level of skill. Indeed, there is evidence that progressing from a more blocked schedule early in the practice of new skills to a more varied schedule later can be advantageous for learning because the challenge scales to the skills of the individual as they improve. In the current study, novice Frisbee© players practiced 3 different throwing skills. One group consisted of expert musicians who got to choose the order that they practiced the different throws. These expert musicians were compared to two groups of novices, who were not experts in any domain. One novice group also chose how to practice, but the other novice group was paired with a member from the expert-musicians and followed the same practice order that the experts had chosen.

The expert musicians did indeed structure their practice differently from the novices. In line with good practice principles, they chose to practice the 3 types of throws in a more blocked manner early in practice, before introducing considerable variability later in practice. This was an effective strategy, as the experts learned the skills better than both novice groups. Moreover, the novice group that chose how to order practice adopted the reverse practice pattern, moving from high switching/varied practice early to less switching/blocked practice later. Because the experts also improved more than the novices who were paired to follow the same order of trials as the expert musicians, this tells us that practice schedules should also be performance-dependent (i.e., tailored to the individual’s needs) for optimal learning. Interestingly, when we asked the musicians at the end of practice what orders they think would be good for practice, they did not show any more explicit awareness of good practice principles in comparison to the novices. This further suggests that they were more attuned, in the moment, to what skill to practice next, based on their current performance and implicit knowledge about what is best for learning.