In my last post I introduced the concept of scholarly grit. A key component of scholarly grit is deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is a concept that was first posited, to my knowledge, by Dr. K. Anders Ericsson while he was at the Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of
Colorado at Boulder. He and his co-authors wrote a landmark paper entitled The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. It’s a a fascinating read about the science of deliberate practice.
The key finding of this paper, in the words of its authors, is that
individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice. Many characteristics once believed to reflect innate talent are actually the result of intense practice extended for a minimum of 10 years
In other words, what people often ascribe to talent is actually the result of a lot of deliberate practice. You may have heard of the 10,000 hours rule. It is the idea, promoted by the author Malcolm Gladwell, the it takes 10,000 hours to master a skill. The myth of the 10,000 hour rule has since been debunked, but the concept of deliberate practice still holds true.
So what is deliberate practice?
Here is my take on deliberate practice and how it relates to students who are majoring in engineering. Engineering is a tough subject and to succeed it really helps to engage in deliberate practice.
First, notice that the phrase deliberate practice has two words.
The use of the first word, deliberate, is…well… quite deliberate!
The gist of being deliberate is to be reflective. When studying for something, or when developing a new skill, don’t just go through the motions of completing a task, such as a homework assignment, just to “get it done” and check it off your list. It’s easy to fall into that mindset; after all, you have hours and hours of work to complete as an engineering student.
But, if you really want to learn something deeply, which you MUST if you want to ensure your success, you must slow down and pay careful attention to the mistakes you make. And it is important that you make mistakes! When you study, you must find that level of challenge that feels hard, where you are uncertain, where you make mistakes. Celebrate your successes, but identify and focus on your weaknesses. Develop a plan to address them, set yourself a deadline to carry out that plan, and then do it.
That is deliberate practice.
But you might wonder – how will I know if I make mistakes? How do I learn from them? A key feature of deliberate practice is feedback. You must get frequent and rapid feedback on your performance. How and where you get this depends on what you are doing; sometimes you can evaluate your own work, sometimes you need to compare what you did against a published solution, sometimes you need to go talk to someone who is more skilled than you are. This could be a classmate, a friend who took the course before you, a teaching assistant, or the professor.
Mere repetition of an activity, without feedback, will not automatically lead to improvement
Here I summarize the basic features of deliberate practice:
- In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance.
- Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further.
- Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.
- Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance
To learn more:
Read Ericsson’s full paper, or his summary, or watch this video by the New Planet School on Deliberate Practice. Also, check out Angela Lee Duckworth’s Ted talk “The key to success? Grit” for an interesting overview of Grit.