Matt Edwards

Associate Professor of Voice, Shenandoah Conservatory Artistic Director of the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute

Mix it up Monday: Consider the novelty effect

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Novelty EffectHave you ever watched a student in a masterclass make a drastic improvement from a new exercise, and then notice that they cannot repeat their success over the long term? I have seen this happen many times, and today I am going to help you understand why. It is called the novelty effect, a concept introduced to me many years ago by my colleague Dr. David Meyer. Here is an explanation of the novelty effect from “Methods in Educational Research” by Marguerite G. Lodico, Dean T. Spaulding, and Katherine H. Voegtle. It is addressed in this context because researchers must account for the impact of the effect when conducting research to avoid skewed results.

Often a new treatment is more effective than an older approach simply because it is new and different. After a while, the novelty wears off, and the new treatment is no better than the older treatment. For example, say that a high school teacher decided to put on a hat each time she was introducing a new concept in class. She uses this treatment in two of her classes (the treatment group) for 2 weeks but not in two other classes randomly assigned to be her control group. She finds that the treatment group shows better understanding of the concepts than the control group. However, the effect may simply show that students pay attention when something new is happening in class. If she continues the hat routine for two months, she may find that it is no longer effective. The novelty effect means that a treatment is effective only when it is new or novel and that the treatment’s effectiveness will not generalize beyond this initial period of time. In a research study, reactive effects due to novelty are controlled for by extending the period of the study long enough so that any novelty effect will have worn off.”

Wikipedia simplifies this into a single sentence:

The novelty effect, in the context of human performance, is the tendency for performance to initially improve when new technology is instituted, not because of any actual improvement in learning or achievement, but in response to increased interest in the new technology.

For example, let’s say a masterclass clinician asks a student to dance while she sings her song. When the student dances, her high notes immediately improve. The improvement is not necessarily because the student gained a better understanding of vocal production by dancing, but rather because the act of dancing itself was a novel approach that caused her body to let go of ingrained habits. When the movement causes tension to release, the voice functions differently, resulting in a new vocal quality. However, when the novelty of the new exercise wears off, the student will likely regress to her old way of singing. This can end up being very discouraging for the student if she begins to believe that her regression is due to a lack of talent rather than the typical end result of learning a concept through a novel approach.

To be sure, the novelty effect can be quite useful in some situations. For instance, if I have a student who is full of physical tension when singing, I might have him vocalize while tossing a ball back-and-forth with me. This is a gimmick that will distract him from the act of singing and get him to loosen up. The problem is the gimmick will lose its effect over the course of several sessions and the ball will no longer achieve the desired result. Knowing this, I use the ball to break the student out of his muscular habit and then help him identify what he is actually doing differently when tossing the ball versus standing still and thinking about his singing. I then connect the dots between the game and vocal function, creating a strategic exercise plan to help him master the results achieved through the use of the novel task.

There is nothing wrong with using exercises that produce a novelty effect as long as you know what is happening and you build upon the success of the novel approach accordingly. At the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute, we train teachers to always take the most indirect approach possible when troubleshooting. So, for instance, to get a student to release more air, a teacher may go to his favorite imagery based exercise first – cueing his student to imagine that her voice is spinning through a unicorn horn. If that directive elicits the result the teacher is seeking, and the student is able to maintain that result over the long-term, great! However, that approach will not always work for a variety of reasons. Often the positive result achieved through the unicorn horn directive will only be due to the novelty of the exercise and the progress will gradually disappear. At the CCM Institute, we train teachers to think about functional changes that occur as a result of any given exercise. When the teacher understands the anatomy and function behind why the unicorn horn cue directive produces a desirable result, the teacher can then design functional vocal exercises that lead to long-term growth.

If you would like to learn more about this approach to teaching, please consider joining us for the CCM Vocal Pedagogy Institute this summer in beautiful Winchester, Virginia. Early registration deadline is May 15. After May 15, there is an additional charge, but you may still register until June 24th.

Have you witnessed the novelty effect in your own studio or in watching the teaching of others? How can it be beneficial? How can it impede progress? Contribute to the conversation in the comments section below. If you would like to follow this blog and receive an email every time there is a new post, you can enter your name and address (without a comment) to be added to our mailing list. If you enjoyed today’s post, please consider sharing it on social media to help spread the word about functional voice training.

As always, thank you for reading and have a wonderful week of teaching! ~ Matt

One comment on “Mix it up Monday: Consider the novelty effect

  1. Dr Daniel K. Robinson
    May 8, 2018

    Yeah! I call this ‘Master Class Magic.’ Smoke and mirrors!


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This entry was posted on May 7, 2018 by in Mix it up Monday, Psychology of teaching, Science, Vocal Exercises.

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