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Improving Academic Performance Through Deliberate Practice

Written by Mark Skoskiewicz | Mon, May 19, 2014 @ 09:12 PM

This article is about how Deliberate Practice can help you improve your academic performance.

What is Deliberate Practice?

It is not a term that students hear often, but it has been scientifically proven (i.e., many studies suggest it’s more important than IQ – and perhaps can help you improve your IQ) to be a critical key to success in many areas of life: academics, career, sports.

At MyGuru, we’d suggest that ‘Deliberate Practice’ is about achieving a high level of focus, full engagement, and immediate feedback when practicing any given type of skill - including simply doing your homework.  Simply put, deliberate practice is what builds skill.  It involves hard work, but requires much more than hard work. 

When you are practicing deliberately, you focus on mastering core concepts at their most basic level.  You break the subject down into the smallest component pieces possible, and then steadily attempt to understand and master more difficult concepts and problems.  It is about fully engaging with and being unafraid of mistakes, because you know that it is through making, reflecting on, and understanding mistakes that you truly learn. Lastly, deliberate practice is about getting the right type of feedback and then repeating the task/problem to make sure that you are learning the new skill correctly and progressing.

Here is another definition, worded slightly differently, from the YouTube video entitled, “Deliberate Practice: The Key to Excellence”:

"The focused effort, combined with proper training and feedback, of an individual over an extended period of time. It is neither short lived, nor simple. It is an effortful activity and may not be inherently enjoyable. It is usually accompanied by someone who guides the practice, gives feedback, and repeats the cycle many times."

Now that we’ve gone over the general idea of deliberate practice, let’s examine how it can be applied to academics.

Of course, the essential first step(s) are to actually go to class, listen attentively, ask questions, and then get home and sit down and do your homework; to use a trite term, practice is what makes perfect.  A surprisingly number of students don’t do homework if it’s not graded.  That’s a big mistake.  You aren’t supposed to be able to learn by sitting in class and listening.  Learning requires engaged practice.  So, if you (or your child) is already at least completing all of their homework with a good faith effort, then you’re on the right track (as obvious as that might seem, it’s important to note).

Here is an overview of what studying for a typical math class WITHOUT deliberate practice might look like for many students:

  • The student has math homework every night, and understands that it is important to finish it before class the next day because a) their grade is partially based on turning in homework each day and b) they do realize homework is part of the learning process
  • The near term goal of the student as they complete the homework is finishing the assignment (not necessarily fully understanding it) – the focus is completion…
  • …a student wants to move on to other things, so they will give it their best shot, finish the last question, and not think about it until class the next day, when, they assume, they will learn whatever it is they aren’t understanding very well tonight
  • So, even if the student is giving the homework a significant amount of effort, each problem will be finished, but likely not reviewed, and many concepts covered in the homework may be a little fuzzy

Now, in comparison, let’s see what studying WITH Deliberate Practice looks like:

  • The first step is to switch your mindset from completion to true understanding.  You may need to finish the work, but you also need to understand the major ideas fully
  • The second step is to recognize the need to be incredibly focused.  That means no distractions, everything must be quiet, and the concentration is on the homework at hand; no cell phones, TV, computers, etc.
  • You may not be able to have a teacher or personal tutor available for your nightly homework to give you immediate responses and feedback…
  • …but you can do 3-5 problems at a time and subsequently check your answes.  You will thus see in real time whether you were correct or not...
  • ...allowing you to give yourself natural feedback on how you’re doing on the particular concept, in real time...
  • ...which builds your skills from the ground up as you progress through the problems

For deliberate practice to be successful, you must be focused on really understanding every problem, even (especially) those that are very difficult.  Pushing yourself to the limits of what you are currently capable of is another key dimension of the skill building process.  The expectation would be that you’ll make a number of mistakes, but as you review the mistakes, you’ll learn and build new skills.  So, whenever you get a problem wrong, it is essential to go back and redo the problem, and to understand what tripped you up.

With deliberate practice, it’s important to look for patterns in the building blocks of what makes one problem easy, the next a little harder, and the most difficult ones the trickiest to master.  Breaking things down into pieces and thinking about how those pieces combine to form a more complicated whole is one of the best ways to learn new things.

In our next blog post, we’ll discuss a few specific examples of deliberate practice in action.  Also, if you're looking for ways to improve your study skills with a private tutor who understands the benefits of deliberate practice, click here to browse our tutor team.