Make It Stick starts the chapter on massed practice with an interesting research anecdote about a group of eight-year-olds who practiced throwing a beanbag into a bucket three feet away. Half the group practiced with the bucket three feet away and half practiced by throwing the beanbag into buckets two and four feet away.
They did this for 12 weeks and then were tested throwing a beanbag into a bucket three feet away. The subjects who practiced on the two and four foot away buckets did much better than the ones who practiced the actual task. Interesting!
And counterintuitive. I would have anticipated the opposite, on the strength of the principle that the closer the practice is to the real world task (or the exam), the better the preparation.
If I wanted to learn a song in a piano book, clearly I’d be better off practicing that song than the song before and after it in the book. But, thinking broadly, maybe I would learn the song better if I practiced it in varied keys. And in the long run perhaps learning a variety of styles of music would help me become stronger in my preferred genre.
In terms of cognitive skills, it’s hard to know how far to take this, and the authors acknowledge that more research is needed. However, it seems reasonable to me that if you were an aspiring CPA and were learning how to audit cash at financial institutions (banks), you’d benefit from practice auditing cash at other types of businesses. The risk is that you waste time practicing learning and applying principles and facts that don’t apply to any of your actual clients, but the upside, maybe, is that the varied practice makes you a stronger auditor in financial institutions.
Actually, the bigger risk I see is that if you specialize in auditing financial institutions, taking time to practice auditing other kinds of institutions may force you to deal with concepts that are foreign to you, raising the cognitive load higher than it needs to be. Cognitive load is not an issue when you are throwing beanbags into buckets, but it is with complex cognitive problem solving.
Thus, a model for using varied practice to learn cognitive skills would have to include guidance on what cognitive variations are useful and which are harmful.