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[Series: Adaptive Learning] The Role of Deliberate Practice in Education

By McGraw-Hill Education 3 years agoNo Comments
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A few weeks ago, we began a series about adaptive learning and how studies in pedagogy and cognition have come to be used in the 21st century in adaptive learning.

In our first blog, we discussed how adaptive learning is a way to make studying and reading adaptive to your learning style. Adaptive learning looks at what you already know about a particular subject and then presents a learning plan for you to increase your knowledge and skills.

K. Anders Ericsson has been studying the process of becoming an expert since the 80s. His research highlights the importance of deliberate practice, which has been incorporated as a tool in adaptive learning.


Becoming an expert

The 10,000 hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, argues that to become an expert, you must practice for 10,000 hours. The figure comes from studies about the differences in experts’ and amateurs’ practice done by K. Anders Ericsson and his associates.


Who was K. Anders Ericsson?

K. Anders Ericsson was born in Sweden in 1947 and completed his Ph.D. in psychology in 1976. Ericsson is currently the Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University. He is recognized internationally for his research on expertise and human performance.

One of Ericsson’s studies, The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance, was written with his colleagues Ralf Th. Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Romer, and was published in “Psychology Review” in 1993. Ericsson continues to study expert performance and has published many more articles on the topic.


Deliberate Practice

Ericsson and his associates developed the term “deliberate practice” to explain what people do to master their subject. To become an expert, those 10,000 hours cannot be spent just playing an instrument or a sport, instead there must be deliberate practice.

This means that time is spent on the most effective activities to improve performance. These activities are highly structured and, unlike sitting down to play a song you like, they are a specific effort to do something you can’t do well. Because of the structure and focus, deliberate practice requires resources, effort, and motivation.

Ericsson has conducted studies on a variety of groups including violinists, pianists, chess players, and golfers. He and his colleagues have found that those who reach expert level in their field have engaged in deliberate practice for ten years or 10,000 hours.

Understanding Deliberate Practice

For example, if you are learning to golf, you will make quick improvements as you learn the basics. But once you know the basics of the sport, you need more than just a Sunday afternoon on the green in order to improve your golf game. A standard round of golf will not allow you to try the same putt multiple times. But to improve your game, that is what you need. You need deliberate practice where you take ten shots from the exact same location in order to change small things, like the grip or stance or club, to learn what really works best and under what conditions it works best.


Why Does It Matter?

Deliberate practice leads to three kinds of learning.

  1. It improves the skills that you already have.
  2. It extends the reach and range of your skills.
  3. It teaches you to think deliberately.

In deliberate practice, the repetition allows you to improve your current skills.  A pianist with a large hand span will continue to expand that as they practice. But deliberate practice will have them focus on the areas that are weak, like speed. As the pianist works to gain accurate speed, their skill set improves.

Thinking deliberately connects wonderfully to critical thinking, and has applications beyond our classrooms. Deliberate practice teaches us to think through the problem or task and then make clear decisions for how we can achieve the result we want.

Ben Hogan, the professional golfer, explained that he begins each putt by thinking through where he wants the ball to go and then each option he has for how to get it there, using deliberate thinking. This allowed him to use all the skills he gained during practice and play his best game.


What Is Required?


Resources are all the things necessary to learn and practice. For the golfer, this includes a golf course, clubs, balls, other equipment and time. For the pianist, this includes a piano, music and time.

For all activities, the main resource required for deliberate practice is a coach or mentor. The coach evaluates the student’s skills, sets clear tasks to improve their skills, and provides feedback on their performance. As the student practices, the coach provides feedback and makes changes so the student learns the skills they really need. “To ensure effective learning, subjects ideally should be given explicit instructions about the best method and be supervised by a teacher to allow individualized feedback, and remedial part training,” according to Ericsson et al.

Based on the feedback, the student might move forward to mastering another skill or they might move back to improve a previously learned skill. “In the absence of adequate feedback, efficient learning is impossible and improvement only minimal even for highly motivated subjects,” said Ericsson and his colleagues. The guiding role of the coach is crucial for the student’s learning.


Deliberate practice requires the student’s full attention and focus. In Ericsson’s studies, he has found that this level of concentration can only be maintained for a specific amount of time, and that continuing deliberate practice beyond that time is ineffective. The violinists that he studied could maintain the effort for approximately four to five hours. Beyond that, their continued practice was not improving their skills. The most effective method is to set aside two hours in the morning for deliberate practice.

We need to designate time for deliberate practice and also designate time for breaks and leisure time. This will allow us to avoid the exhaustion that sustained effort can cause.

Understanding Deliberate Practice


Ericsson and his colleagues admit that deliberate practice isn’t fun. Because of the effort it requires, and because it focuses all our attention on the things that we don’t do well, deliberate practice isn’t generally enjoyable. Motivation to continue often comes from a desire to improve, evidence of the improvement, and goals to meet along the way. We all must find motivation for continuing our deliberate practice, and find a way for that motivation to be continually renewed.


Adaptive Learning and Deliberate Practice

New adaptive technologies help us to leverage our knowledge of the value of adaptive learning and incorporate deliberate practice for each student. For example, McGraw-Hill Education’s adaptive learning program Connect with SmartBook provides opportunities for deliberate practice. A variety of assessment tools allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, showing their individual baseline. The program will then provide learning tools that allow the students to engage in deliberate practice to learn the next set of necessary skills. Because it is adaptive learning, the student is given the learning tools that allow them to gain the skills that they are lacking rather than going through every practice.

The program also helps teachers in their roles as coach and mentor. The program provides analytics on each student and allows the teacher to provide guidance and feedback. SmartBook itself is also a digital coach. The algorithms work as you read an answer questions to gauge your knowledge and learning style. Moving forward, SmartBook is able to determine areas you need to focus on to further improve your knowledge.

Other adaptive learning programs, like Connect, track the students’ skills and provide them with tailored activities to learn the new skills they need.


What Does It Mean for Teachers and Students?

As we think about adaptive learning, deliberate practice gives us a way to consider the activities that we need in order to learn new skills. Deliberate practice reminds us that students need individual learning that focuses on their current skill set, they need to be challenged without being overwhelmed, and they need specific feedback to guide their improvements.

As learners, try giving yourself a specific amount of time to work on mastering one skill, and try it multiple ways until you find what works. As a teacher, consider what feedback your students need on their road to mastery.

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  Series: Adaptive Learning
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