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Deliberate Practice

Lesson 12: Implement prior lessons with deliberate practice.

In prior lessons we learned some of the key principles of memorization:

  • Lesson 1: encoding, consolidation, retrieval, reconsolidation
  • Lesson 2: getting motivated
  • Lesson 3: paying attention
  • Lesson 8: making associations

We will learn how to implement these principles in this lesson on deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues came up with the idea of deliberate practice during the 1990s, based on their study of musicians. The researchers saw that deliberate practice requires a considerable time investment, but it is more than just repeating what you are trying to master. It is not “drill and kill.” It is practice in which you:

  • Have a clear long-term objective in mind.
  • Plan what you need to do in detail.
  • Monitor how you executed the plan, with attention to specific details.
  • Notice what to avoid and what to repeat in the future.
  • Apply corrective feedback to adjust the plan if needed and remind yourself what you need to do differently next time.
  • Affirm and reward yourself for progress.
  • Get coaching from an outside source, like a teacher.
  • Keep raising the standards for acceptable performance.

When I transitioned from a D student in the fourth grade to an A student in the seventh grade, I think the change was made possible through deliberate practice. Though I did not understand much about deliberate practice, I did intuitively use some elements of it.

Penmanship class was likely the turning point, because deliberate practice is baked into the learning. When I looked at a drawing of a cursive “a” and tried to duplicate it, the results were tangible and immediate. I had to think about where my drawing missed the mark and what I needed to do to make it look better. I had to keep repeating the process until what I produced looked like the instructional example. Aside from the utility of learning cursive, this may be the most beneficial example of teaching penmanship in school. Few schools do that these days.

Until you have mastered the learning goal, deliberate practice is a cyclic process that is repeated again and again. Most everyone has had this kind of learning experience at some point, usually when they are trying to perfect some kind of physical action. If you were in the school band, for example, you used deliberate practice to memorize sheet music and master your instrument. If you were in a sport, you used deliberate practice in perfecting the movement skill sets.

If you did not have these experiences, here is one you can try right now: To perfect learning how to stand on one foot in a yoga pose, you could just do it repeatedly without thinking about what you have to do to make it work. Try it. You will see that does not work well. Now try it again, focusing on a visual spot far away and think about what muscles in your foot you have to activate to keep you balanced. These deliberate tactics will train you much faster to master this task.

Deliberate practice is not limited to physical movements. It is equally applicable to mastering school work. The practice objective might likely be to perform better on exams or to develop competence you know will be required in later courses.

Study sessions need to be strategic. That is, at the time you are studying, you need to think about what you need to do to make your memorization better. You may need to pump up your motivation level. You will need focus and self-discipline to work outside your comfort zone. Perhaps you need to invent better mnemonics. You need to think about how often to repeat self-testing forced recall. You need to contrive ways to apply what you are trying to learn. You need to take practice quizzes and solve related problems. You need a way to check on the completeness of your understanding. You need to have a way to check on the correctness of your recall and establish criteria for satisfactory mastery.

Next Lesson: Especially difficult learning tasks


Clear, James (n.d.) Deliberate practice and how to use it.

Keep, Ben (n.d.) Deliberate practice in the classroom. The Learning Curve.…