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The Concept of Deliberate Practice in Learning

The Concept of Deliberate Practice in Learning

It is one of the most worn out cliches from sports to academics to music -- “practice makes perfect”. Coaches, teachers, and bosses preach the value of practice to improve and master any important concept. And it is common sense that when you review and apply any concept or skill you are attempting to learn, you can train yourself to do it naturally (and hopefully, more effectively) with each repetition. But when it’s up to you to practice, without the presence of a mentor or teacher, how can you ensure you are practicing effectively?

The first thing you need to do is understand the problems with our traditional definition of practice:

  • Repetition alone of anything (memorizing vocabulary words, practicing a musical number, throwing football) isn’t enough to actually improve
  • Repetitive practice is useful for “automating” a concept, but not continuing to grow it. To put it another way, when you have practiced enough to “capably” do something, the motivation to keep practicing it diminishes
  • Practice without goals or structure doesn’t provide a path forward for enhancing or combining skills or concepts

Because traditional and non-structured methods of practice hit these limitations, learning scientists and psychologists began to study how the standard method of practicing something could be enhanced or optimized. The result of the work of years of studies by academics in a variety of subjects, deliberate practice identifies some specific methods for moving your practice beyond just becoming adequate at something, and instead constantly growing.

So how can you use deliberate practice to, say, learn how to code? There are some concrete steps and procedures that have grown out of the research that anyone can follow. Let’s take a deeper dive into these components of deliberate practice now.

Step 1: Create Motivation 

Much like studies into memory retention and focus, one of the biggest drivers of deliberate practice is the ability to create and sustain your own motivation when learning any new concept. While it’s easy to begin any coding class or academic program because it may be an interesting potential career choice, the tough part when mastering any skill is maintaining your motivation when you run into frustrations or areas of incremental progress. When students can’t see the point or the product of the work they are putting in, practice becomes daunting and harder to give full effort to.

While it’s easy to talk about being motivated, creating and sustaining motivation is much harder in practice. Fortunately, there are some steps that you can take to help sustain yours:

  • Create some learning and achievement goals to strive towards. We’ll talk more about the deliberate practice approach to goal-setting shortly.
  • Try to find some tangible purpose to what you are learning. If you choose to learn Python, for example, consider what the end point might be. Do you want to build an app? Become a senior developer? Or use it as a springboard to further learnings?
  • If you are choosing to learn something as a path toward a new career or hobby, write down what frustrates you about your current job. This can serve as a valuable reminder when you find yourself bogged down while learning.

Step 2: Create Specific And Realistic Short- And Long-Term Goals

Vague aspirations like “getting better” or “knowing the material in Chapter 2” are very hard to measure and quantify. These types of general goals for improvement don’t provide the motivation to excel past your current abilities or help you measure your progress, and make it easier to lose your motivation or become frustrated as you learn.

Deliberate practice is founded on small, achievable, well-defined steps that help you work your way through and measure your progress toward meaningful improvement. These achievable and specific steps should take into account your current knowledge and skill level and push those boundaries little by little, consistently expanding your abilities.

Deliberate practice also emphasizes the fact that goals should be quantifiable, unlike a New Year’s resolution that you may aspire towards but not stick with (or even remember) on a daily basis. Another good idea is to enlist your instructor, classmates, peers, or a mentor figure to help evaluate the goals you have created, to see if they are specific and achievable or if they need to be reworked.

Step 3: Being Comfortable Is The Enemy Of Deliberate Practice 

Anders Ericsson, one of the most prominent learning scientists and one of the architects of the ideas of deliberate practice and methods of maximizing attention, created a very simple maxim for how learners should approach practice. In his book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, Ericsson wrote of practice that “This is a fundamental truth about any sort of practice: If you never push yourself beyond your comfort zone, you will never improve.”

For goals to truly drive improvement, they need to constantly push and challenge your current abilities. If you stick to simply repeating skills you already know how to do — an unproductive cycle that's easy to get bogged down within traditional approaches to practice — you won’t actually enhance your skill level or improve performance or the ability to apply concepts you are learning and mastering.

As any fitness or athletic coach will tell you, stretching yourself and pushing your limits is the key to growth. But Ericsson emphasizes that when it comes to skills development, breaking out of your comfort zone isn’t only about “trying harder,” but about “trying differently.” Your goals should balance on the edge of what you are and aren’t capable of doing. If you can’t move forward with one technique or approach and find yourself stuck, try another and keep experimenting until you break through the barrier that’s blocking your path to improvement. This lets you experience success and measurable progress, without becoming bogged down and losing motivation.

Step #4: Ask Questions And Seek Feedback 

Ericsson went on in his foundational book to discuss the role of mentorship and feedback in the deliberate practice process. “Seek feedback either from yourself or from outside observers -- you cannot figure out what you need to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goals”. Quite simply, if you don’t turn to those who have mastered the concepts or skills before you, it is impossible for you to measure your own progress or consider your goals met.

Feedback is most essential for identifying areas of improvement, as well as discovering issues you are having that you may not even be conscious of yourself. Whether this is done through tutoring or meeting with a mentor, talking with your instructor, or working together with peers on a similar task, finding an outside viewpoint along with your own self-assessment is essential to tailoring your practice habits and making them meaningful. It is also the only way to determine if you have just adequately mastered a concept, or if you are truly improving or have reached your ceiling and should move on to the next stage in your learning.

Step #5: Build In Time To Recover 

Because deliberate practice requires your full commitment and attention (which requires your maximum mental or physical effort), it cannot be effectively sustained for more than a short period of time. Laboratory studies of extended practice have capped the optimal time at one hour per day, three to five days a week, while longitudinal studies have seen reduced benefits when practice sessions exceed two hours because fatigue or a lack of motivation can compromise not only further practice, but also the retention from the more focused practice before fatigue set in.

This level of intensity and concentration makes recovery time important. Ericsson has observed that many of the top performers he studied benefited from napping. For others, it might be rewarding yourself with your favorite TV show, going out to dinner with friends, or even working out -- anything that lets you “turn your brain off” from the concepts you are trying to master. No matter what relaxation or “recharging” looks like for you, it’s essential to offset the intense effort of deliberate practice to avoid mental or physical fatigue.