Many of us are familiar with the idea that practice helps to improve performance. We have heard familiar mantras like, “Practice makes perfect”. We may have even read books about practice such as, Malcolm Gladwell’s, 2011 bestseller, Outliers: The Story of Success. Outliers popularized the idea of the 10,000-hour rule and the merits of many hours of practice. According to Gladwell, 10,000 hours is the amount of time it takes to become an expert, but is it true that the only thing standing between us and expert status in any skill is practice time and dedication? Does practice really make perfect? As it turns out, that’s not quite the whole story.
Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule is based on the research of psychologist K. Anders Ericsson. Ericsson explores a question that I have found to be particularly interesting and relevant to educators: How do you capture superior performance and reproduce it? It turns out that length of practice is not the only component to improving performance. When it comes to improving skill level, there is no magic number. If you think about it, most students spend 10,000 hours in school but unfortunately, many do not graduate as expert learners.
How can we change this? Ericsson suggests that deliberate practice or practice oriented toward a specific goal is what improves performance. After setting and establishing a goal, practice needs to contain three elements in order to result in skill gains:
Self-Monitoring and Evaluation
While practicing a skill, the student needs to monitor their performance thinking about how they are doing with the task in front of them and whether the strategies they are using are working. They may ask themselves:
- What went well?
- What did not go so well?
- What do I need to do differently next time?
Feedback from an Expert
When students are learning something new, they need a coach to help improve their level of skill. In the classroom, the teacher acts as that coach providing students with feedback on their performance. According to Hattie and Yates, feedback should help students to determine the answers to the following questions:
- Where am I going?
- How am I doing and what progress have I made?
- What should I do next?
Feedback, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation help students to practice in a way that continuously refines and improves their process and their resulting skill-level.
Gradual Skill Refinement
Once students understand what to refine, they can revise what they are doing for improved performance. Marzano conceptualizes this as a five-step process where a student:
- Thinks about their current and previous understanding
- Searches for mistakes and corrects them
- Determines if there are areas that are still confusing or steps that are missing
- Updates prior knowledge to use the correct process or procedure from now on
- Checks to see if they can explain the mistake, the revision that was made to their work, and the result
Once a student has mastered a skill, the level of difficulty should increase so that they continue to be challenged to improve their performance.
So what is the difference between students who become expert learners by graduation and those who do not? Learners who excel deliberately practice not just what to learn (content) but how to learn (strategies). Students who continue to be high achievers after graduating from high school display more self-regulatory behaviors and appropriately timed strategy use. Through practice in partnership with an expert learner, their teacher, these students gain the ability to use effective strategies for the task in front of them and the knowledge needed to plan, monitor, and evaluate their own performance so that they are eventually capable of learning independently.
Nina Parrish is the author of The Independent Learner: Metacognitive Exercises to Help K-12 Students Focus, Self-Regulate, and Persevere.