Have you ever noticed how some people have a tendency to talk out loud to themselves?
For some, it’s just a whispered mumbling or silent mouthing of words as they assemble their new IKEA bookshelf. For others, it can be a little more overt, and take the form of louder and more colorful language, as they discover they’ve purchased the most complicated minimalist bookshelf that IKEA has designed yet.
Indeed, one of my teachers had this amusing habit of talking out loud to himself. Essentially offering a running play-by-play of whatever he was doing at the moment, whether he was sharpening a pencil,
typing hunt/pecking out an email, or packing the trunk of a car.
I thought it was a personal quirk, but as the years have gone by, I’ve caught myself talking out loud on occasion. And it seems I’m not alone in doing so.
What’s up with this? Are we just weirdos?
Or is there something about talking out loud that is actually productive and helpful? Perhaps even when it comes to practicing, and solving problems we might encounter in our concerto or orchestral excerpts?
Thinking out loud
A variety of studies, dating back as far as the early 60’s, have found thinking aloud to enhance problem-solving, learning, and our ability to transfer learning from one task to another.
Some have suggested that verbalizing our thoughts forces us to slow down, stop, and think through the important elements of the task or problem in front of us more carefully, deliberately, and consciously. And that this encourages us to zoom out and adopt a big-picture view of the problem where we can focus more on our problem-solving process.
Ok…but what does that really mean, and what exactly are we supposed to say when we talk out loud to ourselves? Simply narrate what we’re doing as we do it? Give ourselves some encouragement when the going gets tough? Verbalize whatever thoughts pop into our heads, whether it’s relevant or not?
Five different strategies
A group of researchers (Berardi-Coletta et al., 1995) put together a series of studies to test several talk-aloud strategies in hopes of better understanding how to maximize the “talking-aloud effect.”
109 participants were tasked with solving different variations of the Tower of Hanoi puzzle (try it yourself right here) in the fewest number of moves, before being given a final test on the most challenging variation (to see how effectively they could transfer what they’ ve learned to a new problem).
Participants were randomly assigned to one of five groups, each of which tested out a different kind of think-aloud strategy.
Before each move, the “metacognitive” group for instance was asked to answer questions like “How are you deciding which disk to move next?” or “How do you know that this is a good move?” The idea was to get them to adopt a higher-level process focus, by thinking about what they were doing (ie consciously monitoring the intentionality of each move) as well as how they were doing (ie evaluating the success/failure/effectiveness of each move).
The “if-then” group’s Instructions were a little more rigidly structured, but likewise intended to get them focused on the problem-solving process. For instance: “Before each move, I want you to tell me where you are going to move each disk, and why. Specifically, I want you to state this in an ‘if-then’ statement, for example, ‘If I move this disk to this peg, then this will happen’.”
The “problem-focused” group was asked to answer questions like “What is the goal of the problem?” or “What are the rules of the problem?” before each move. The idea was to give them some structure, but not at the higher process level of the other two groups.
The “think-aloud” control group was given no real structure to guide their thinking, but simply told to “think out loud while you are solving this problem. Try to keep talking as much as you can so that I can hear what you are thinking about as you solve the problem.”
The “silent” control group was given no additional instructions beyond the standard instructions for the puzzle. So they didn’t verbalize their thoughts out loud at all.
So how did the groups do? Was there any difference between them?
Which worked best?
The researchers evaluated groups’ effectiveness by counting how many excess moves the participants made in solving the puzzle. In other words, each variation of the puzzle can be solved in a certain number of moves, so any moves above and beyond the minimum number of moves needed to solve the puzzle were considered “error” or mistake moves.
On average, during practice, the control groups (silent and think-aloud) made more unnecessary moves or mistakes than the two process-focused (metacognitive and if-then) groups. This was true for every variation of the puzzle – from the easiest 2-disk version to the more complex 5-disk version.
After practice, everyone was tested on the more challenging 6-disk version of the puzzle, to see how effectively they could transfer what they learned from the practice puzzles.
And just like in practice, the control groups made significantly more errors or unnecessary moves than the process-focused groups. An average of 2.5 error moves for every correct move vs. just 1 error move per correct move for the metacognitive and if-then groups.
The problem-focused group, incidentally, fared somewhere in the middle. Better than the control groups, but not as good as the process-focused groups.
So what does this all mean?
A couple observations
The data yielded a number of interesting findings, but the researchers made two observations that may be of particular interest to musicians.
Observation #1: Unless we are guided, we tend not to focus on or engage in process-level thinking. It’s more natural for us to simply play, stop, and repeat, until the problem seems to have been solved. Except that in “solving” problems on this implicit level, while we may get the job done in the short term, we make more mistakes during the process.
Observation #2: If instead we focus on what we are doing and why we are doing it (whether we verbalize these things out loud or not), we can not only solve problems more efficiently, but also transfer those solution to similar new problems we might encounter in the future (thereby solving those problems more quickly, with fewer unnecessary mistakes as well).
All in all, this means less wasted time trying to solve problems, and more time left to work on more interesting problems.
If you’re in the mood to procrastinate (😅), try the Tower of Hanoi puzzle again, using the different strategies, and see how this changes the problem-solving experience.
Or if you’ve already procrastinated long enough, pick up your instrument and try thinking out loud while trying to solve a problem. Maybe start with the “if-then” strategy, which at least to me, seems like the easiest one to remember how to do – eg”If I release my thumb, then I’ll be able to get my hand into position for the shift more smoothly.”
It might feel a little ridiculous at first, but maybe a good kind of ridiculous? Especially if it saves you time, makes practicing a little more fun, and spares you some frustration in the long run!
A version of this article was originally posted on 03.22.2015; reposted on 06.12.2022.
Berardi-Coletta, B., Buyer, LS, Dominowski, RL, & Rellinger, ER (1995). Metacognition and problem solving: A process-oriented approach. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 21(1), 205–223.