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When a practice session is too long, there will presumably be a point where no further significant gains can be made without a break. At what point will this be?

Update: This question was originally about the length of an initial training session, but it has since been rescoped to cover training sessions in general.

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@Casebash so you are asking whether the stopping criteria for practice should be the attainment of a certain level of task success? Presumably this would vary between individuals based on prior skill and speed of learning. Does that matter? –  Jeromy Anglim Feb 5 '12 at 3:01
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What are you defining as "optimal"? amount learnt in a given day? What if rate of learning slows down over time but does not stop completely, what would optimal mean then? –  Jeromy Anglim Feb 5 '12 at 4:55
    
Does the question need to be limited to "initial sessions" or would it be simpler to ask in general: how long should a practice session be? –  Jeromy Anglim Feb 5 '12 at 4:57
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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Principles of optimal practice duration from the expertise literature

The expertise literature and its discussion of deliberate practice provides substantial guidance on the question of optimal practice duration. As Ericsson et al (2006) summarised:

elite performers search continuously for optimal training activities, with the most effective duration and intensity, that will appropriately strain the targeted physiological system to induce further adaptation without causing overuse and injury.

With regards to optimal practice length, Ericsson et al (2006) stated (with key points bolded by me) that:

Although the detailed nature of deliberate practice will differ across domains and as a function of attained skill, there appear to be limits on the daily duration of deliberate practice, and this limit seems to generalize across domains of expertise. Expert performers from many domains engage in practice without rest for only around an hour, and they prefer to practice early in the morning when their minds are fresh (Ericsson et al., 1993 ). Elite musicians (Ericsson, 2002) and athletes (Ericsson, 2001, 2003 c) report that the factor that limits their deliberate practice is primarily an inability to sustain the level of concentration that is necessary. Even more interestingly, elite performers in many diverse domains have been found to practice, on the average, roughly the same amount every day, including weekends, and the amount of practice never consistently exceeds five hours per day (Ericsson, 1996; Ericsson et al., 1993 ). The limit of four to five hours of daily deliberate practice or similarly demanding activities holds true for a wide range of elite performers in different domains, such as writing by famous authors (Cowley, 195 9; Plimpton, 1977), as does their increased tendency to take recuperative naps. Furthermore, unless the daily levels of practice are restricted, such that subsequent rest and nighttime sleep allow the individuals to restore their equilibrium, individuals often encounter overtraining injuries and, eventually, incapacitating “burnout.” In some domains of sports, such as gymnastics, sprinting, and weight lifting, the max- imal effort necessary for representative performance is so great that the amount of daily deliberate practice is even further limited by factors constraining the duration of produc- tion of maximal power and strength.

Implications for the specifics of your question

Thus, based on the expertise literature, four or five one-hour sessions of deliberate practice in a day with plenty of rest between and at night would be optimal if the aim is to maximise learning on the focal task in the shortest period of time.

In general, I wouldn't define optimal duration of practice in terms of amount of the task learnt.

Also, in the real-world, the optimality criterion can vary between people. The expertise literature assumes that the goal is to maximise learning on the focal skill. However, in the real-world, a person may be learning a number of things, and also need to accomplish tangible outcomes at the same time.

References

  • Cowley, M. (Ed.) (195 9). Writers at work: The Paris review interviews. New York: Viking.
  • Ericsson, K. A. (1996). The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues. In K. A. Ericsson (Ed.), The road to excellence: The acquisition of expert performance in the arts and sciences, sports, and games (pp. 1–5 0). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2001). The path to expert performance: Insights from the masters on how to improve performance by deliberate practice. In P. Thomas (Ed.), Optimizing performance in golf (pp. 1–5 7). Brisbane, Australia: Australian Academic Press.
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2002). Attaining excellence through deliberate practice: Insights from the study of expert performance. In M. Ferrari (Ed.), The pursuit of excellence in education (pp. 21–5 5 ). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
  • Ericsson, K. A. (2003c). The development of elite performance and deliberate practice: An update from the perspective of the expert-performance approach. In J. Starkes & K. A. Ericsson (Eds.), Expert performance in sport: Recent advances in research on sport exper- tise (pp. 49–81). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  • Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. Th., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993 ). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100, 3 63 –406. PDF
  • Ericsson, K. et al. (2006). The influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance. The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance, 10(3):683-703. PDF
  • Plimpton, G. (Ed.) (1977). Writers at work: The Paris review. Interviews, Second Series. New York: Penguin.
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Thanks for the answer. It is very interesting. However, the question was actually more about practise within a session and when to move onto a different skill. Perhaps, I haven't scoped it as well as I could have. The reason I asked about percentages was that I was trying too make it an answerable question –  Casebash Feb 5 '12 at 11:35
    
ahh, okay. I'm happy to modify my answer, or perhaps a separate question is in order; So you're saying, if you're teaching a number of different tasks in a training session, how long should you spend on any one task? Also, just curious, is there a particular task or domain that motivated the question for you? –  Jeromy Anglim Feb 5 '12 at 11:43
    
If you have any information about the question I was trying to ask, then it'd be really great if you could edit it into the question. Currently, I am trying find out how this applies to dancing –  Casebash Feb 5 '12 at 12:02
    
@Casebash let me know; but I think a dedicated question specifically on dance instruction (e.g., with dance instruction in the title) that focuses on the specifics of your situation would be a better option at this point, perhaps with a link to this question. –  Jeromy Anglim Feb 5 '12 at 12:16
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I think that is a good idea. I'll create a new question –  Casebash Feb 5 '12 at 12:26
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Experimental psychologists have really grappled with this question, because boundary conditions make a huge difference. One valiant effort is found in a recent paper by Rawson and Dunlosky at Kent State University, who put forth a "3 x 3" recommendation: Practice to your desired criterion three times, then repeat practice at 3 regularly spaced intervals.

References

  • Rawson, K. and Dunlosky, J. (2011). Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(3):283.
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