Study Strategy: Deliberate Practice

Practice doesn’t always make perfect despite the popularity of this saying. However, deliberate practice (a term coined by Anders Ericsson) does lead to improvement and, ultimately, success.  According to Ericsson that means practicing activities that lead to maximizing improvement through development towards expert performance. This sounds complex and a little highbrow. Put more simply, it means the identification of strategies that work and practicing these in an efficient and effective way.

If you have read our first two blogs on mindset and neuroplasticity then you will appreciate the importance of understanding the amazing capacity of the human brain. More importantly, you will know that any innate talents (perceived or otherwise) are simply the starting point – not only can we learn new things, but we can become smarter. In fact, with the right guidance, support and coaching (or teaching), we can achieve more than is often thought possible.

Application to School

Does your child work really hard, put the effort in and yet doesn’t seem to ‘get anywhere’? Is s/he re-reading notes, highlighting information, spending hours studying and not making progress? If this is your child, s/he should be congratulated firstly, for having the motivation and determination to study. But, secondly, it is worth exploring with them why the hard work isn’t paying off. With study in particular there isn’t always a correlation between the quantity (number of hours) devoted to it and the quality of the end result. Deliberate practice plays a central role in a quality outcome.

Applied to schooling, deliberate practice involves the act of studying in a very strategic way, using evidence of what works. It is well-defined, specific, goal-directed and consists of repeated stretch and challenge. On this journey, progress is the goal. Deliberate practice therefore involves critical learning opportunities, especially in times of ‘failure’ or under-performance. In our culture, failure is typically associated with negative feelings, including shame and embarrassment. Elsewhere, in East Asia for instance, failure is embraced as a positive opportunity to learn.

What might deliberate practice actually look like for your child’s study patterns?

  1. It will involve a maximum 45-minute study session at any one time, followed by a 10-minute break and 5-minute review.
  2. It will involve interleaving, that is, changing the order in which topics are studied to guarantee more effortful learning. Homework practices would also benefit from this mixed ordering.
  3. It will involve the organization of study sessions that guide your child to recall knowledge and demonstrate his/her understanding, without the aid of study/text/notes.
  4. It will involve a spaced revision schedule, that is, the revision of new material on up to four occasions in order to create and strengthen new neural pathways, and then commit this to longer-term memory.

As a parent, you can be directly involved in these deliberate practices. Quiz your child about what they are learning. Quizzes can be fun! Challenge them to answer a past paper question. Encourage them to take a blank sheet of paper and to retrieve from memory, without the aid of study notes, something they have learned in class or have revised that day.

Studying should always involve specific goals rather than working towards a broad and general outcome. Not only will smaller more manageable chunks help with setting goals but this also helps your child to move from basic to more sophisticated goals.

Tune in to future blogs to hear more about our Ultimate Study System (built on evidence of what works, including deliberate practice), about the differences between recognition and recall, and how to design study sessions to maximize your child’s learning. Until next time …

Roisin McFeely is Founder and Director of Amazing Brains, a Social Enterprise that works with 50,000 young people every year to help them develop the mindset and study skills to succeed in exams. She holds an M.Ed with Distinction from QUB and her research on Examining Students’ Views Of Intelligence And The Link To Motivation To Learn was shortlisted for a British Educational Research Association award. She is also a former international athlete. 


Author: amazingbrains

Amazing Brains specialises in workshops and resources to make students smarter.

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