‘Deliberate practice’ speeds up mastery of detailed, difficult work
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‘Deliberate practice’ speeds up mastery of detailed, difficult work

Good musicians practice their scales. And of course excellent musicians practice their scales. Both groups may even spend equal times on practice.

But how they practice – that’s what is different.

One cognitive-science study suggests that the biggest difference between good performers and top performers is something called “deliberate practice.”

The study found that top performers deliberately sought out difficulties and corrected errors. For example, if they struggled with moving from one chord to another, they’d specifically practice that troubling sequence until they could do it fluidly.

Just-okay performers practiced too. But they didn’t zero in on their weaknesses. For example, they were more likely to practice a scale all the way through each time, without stopping to correct errors.

Feels like losing
It may seem obvious to spend more time practicing the things you don’t do well. So why don’t more people do it?

Probably because it makes us feel bad. If we rip through those scales and get 90% of them right, we feel competent. If we keep going over and over the 10% we get wrong, we feel like losers. So we don’t do it.

Redefining success
Another study suggests a way around this conundrum: Redefine success in terms of how quickly learners are improving – because deliberate practice also accelerates learning.

A medical school took a group of fourth-year med-school students and gave them a 12-session schedule to learn a specific method of vascular heart surgery.

Students were taken through the method a step at a time. For example, they were first taught suturing techniques. Then they practiced on cloth materials. Then they moved to pig aortas, and ultimately practiced on pig hearts.

During intense, one-on-one sessions, they practiced deliberately – instructors helped students master each individual step, with special emphasis on the areas that were giving each student trouble.

After four months, these students were filmed performing vascular surgery on a pig heart. A control group of senior general-surgery residents were filmed doing the same operation.

An expert panel watched both groups on film, not knowing whether they were watching a med student or an experienced resident.

The residents did a little better, both on speed of operation and the form used. But the scores were very close.

Conclusion: Deliberate practice vastly accelerated the skill level of the medical students.

In fact, after these training sessions the students’ skill levels were almost equal to those of residents, who were five years ahead of them in terms of their studies and experience.

Here are some implications for your coaching and training efforts:

1. Train in chunks. Deliberate practice involves breaking down skills into specific steps, and then mastering each step. So approach training the same
way. Break down training into chunks that learners can master one at a time.

2. Focus on problems. These studies suggest that learners don’t have to practice everything with equal intensity. With limited time available for training and follow up, a training program that focuses on “filling in the gaps” with specific, targeted training may be a better investment than one-size-fits-all training.

3. Remind learners how much they do right. Inoculate them against feelings of frustration. Tell them: “We’re not focusing on these areas because you’re
bad at them. We’re focusing on them because you’re good at everything else.”

4. Leave time for practice. Many training sessions involve a whole lot of instruction and a little bit of practice. But deliberate practice requires a lot of time – time to do things over and over until they’re right. Factor that into your agenda.

5. Build in multiple practice sessions. Mastery isn’t going to happen after just one or two practice sessions. The medical-school experiment used 12
sessions over 3 months. That seems like a lot, but it vastly accelerated the learning. Schedule follow-up times so that learners can keep practicing until they get it right.

6. Create visible signs of progress. Recent research shows that one of the most powerful motivators in the workplace is visible signs of progress. Since deliberate practice accelerates progress, use that as your metric for success.

Ericson et al. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance, Psychological Review, Vol. 100, no. 3, 363-406.

Nesbitt et al. (2013). Tissue-based coronary surgery simulation: Medical student deliberate practice can achieve equivalency to senior surgery residents. The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery, March (in press).

Amabile & Kramer (2011). The Progress Principle. Harvard Business Review Press.

Photo credit: nosha

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