Just because you're practicing an instrument doesn't mean you're learning

Are you learning to play an instrument? "Practice makes perfect," right?

There's a catch: Just because you're practicing an instrument, a language, or even CPR resuscitation, it doesn't mean you're learning.

What can you do? Research demonstrates interleaving boosts learning for both content (e.g., math) and skills. Download our Interleaving Practice Guide and read below for tips from an orchestra director. The key: Mix it up!

P.S. Before critical thinking, do facts come first? Read last week's update on Bloom's Taxonomy!


Already retrieving? Use interleaving, too


When practicing an instrument, completing math problems, and acquiring other skills-based content (surgery, anyone?), we assume students are learning because they're retrieving. But that's not always the case

Let’s say you’re learning to play the guitar. You could:

You would be combining retrieval practice, spacing, and feedback – congrats! Except the small amount of spacing and correct answer feedback might help you in the short term, but not in the long term. Challenges ("desirable difficulties") improve learning, and you and your students can do more.

How can you take skill learning to the next level?

Incorporate interleaving. Interleaving boosts learning by mixing up closely related topics, encouraging discrimination between similarities and differences. For example,

  • Mix up the order of a song instead of playing the song start to finish.

  • Mix up math problems covering similar concepts (multiplication and division of fractions) instead of practicing one concept at a time.

Interleaving doesn't require advance planning or course restructuring! Download our Interleaving Practice Guide and check out our flexible strategies.


David Schurger, Orchestra Director


David Schurger, an Orchestra Director for Zionsville Community High School in Indiana, loves to use interleaving in his teaching. Here's his 5-step process:

1) Start with the fundamentals. I teach orchestra and my four areas are Posture/Body, Right Hand, Left Hand, and Musical Elements.

2) Identify sub-categories. I broke down the Right Hand to include bow hand shape, bow strokes, and bow management.

3) Rate the difficulty of each sub-category. Within each category you’ll have an idea of which bits of material will be more difficult to learn or conceptualize.

4) Create material based on sub-categories. Create activities that relate, but approach material from a different angle each time. Interleaving has begun!

5) Schedule your fundamentals throughout the week. Focus on one fundamental a day. Help students synthesize how the previous day relates to the current day and forecast the next day’s fundamental.

As David puts it, "Interleaving is one of the ultimate means to a more flexible learner. Start small with one concept and experiment with yourself or your students. Get out there and mix it up!"