Some learning we ask of students comes easily. It may build on prior learning with little struggle or need for extra focus. Other new learning may relate to life experiences with which students can relate and learning comes with obvious purpose. Still other learning may require only memorization or mnemonic devices to anchor needed information. We can support these learning experiences through explicit instruction, repetition, and application of new content.
However, during times like we are experiencing now, our students often need more. We are challenged to help students make up for learning not gained last year and build the key skills that will position them to be proficient learners in the future. We need to go beyond learning that is easy and support students to tackle learning that is complex, challenging, and requires development of expertise. This level of learning requires a different approach.
Researchers have documented a powerful learning strategy for these times called deliberate practice. Athletes, artists, and other highly skilled learners often employ deliberate practice to build the skills and expertise necessary for the next level of performance. However, this learning approach is available to any learner who faces learning that requires “heavy lifting” to reach the next level.
Deliberate practice is more than simple repetition of new learning to generate automaticity and create muscle memory. Automaticity alone does not lead to new learning. In fact, at times repetition can impede progress, especially if students are confused or have a misconception about what they are learning.
Deliberate practice is a special type of practice. In fact, it has been shown to hold the power to produce results that exceed the natural talent students may possess and levels of performance we normally would expect from them. Deliberate practice is not necessarily fun, but it can be highly rewarding. When the learning we ask from our students requires special effort and “heavy lifting,” it is a strong, dependable, and predictable force to build complex skills and master new concepts. Deliberate practice features four key elements that unleash its surprising power: clarity, goals, feedback, and focus.
At the core of deliberate practice is clarity about what is to be learned. We and our students must be clear about the challenge and the benefits learning will generate. Success in this aspect of deliberate practice depends on breaking down what is to be learned so that key elements can be studied, tried, improved, and mastered. In this phase, we need to help novice learners understand exactly what will be involved in the learning process.
Deliberate practice is powered by goals, especially goals set by and with learners. Deciding what defines success clarifies alignment in and provides precision for learning efforts. Goals define the ultimate outcome and may suggest tools to mark progress along the way. When goals are present, learning paths can be created and progress can be tracked.
Deliberate practice also requires timely, specific, actionable feedback. Practice without feedback invites mistakes, distractions, bad habits, and misunderstanding. While learners can, in many situations, assist each other with feedback, we need to be ready to offer key insights, guidance, and progress reinforcement to be certain that learning stays on track.
Further, deliberate practice requires focus. Learning grows with intensity. In fact, shorter bursts of intense practice are likely to produce more learning than longer sessions and more repetitions without intense effort and focus.
Deliberate practice is a skill that can be learned and utilized by our students throughout their lives. Research demonstrates that if we instill this skill and habit in our students, we offer them a lifelong gift that will propel them to success far beyond what might be predicted by their background, intellectual capacity, and natural talents. There is no better time than the present to expose our students to this powerful learning strategy.