We all know that in order to acquire a new skill we have to practice. Anytime we want to learn something new in school, it requires practice as well. However, some methods of practice are far more effective than others. Often what separates great from average in school, sports, and other endeavors is not just natural talent but how they practice.
Both quantity and quality of practice are important.
It is apparent that people who love to practice often eventually outperform those who don’t. In general, the more you practice, the better the outcome will be. A student who studies every day for several months for the SAT is going to do better than a student who starts studying a few days before the test. However, there is a limit on how much practice a person can do, and you don’t want to practice so much that you start to feel burnt out.
Getting good at something also depends on the quality of practice that you do. If you practice without knowing your specific needs for improvement, you are often ingraining the same mistakes you always make. Conversely, great performers in all areas practice deliberately. This means that they are constantly analyzing their performance looking for areas that need improvement. Quality practice works to improve performance because it builds up myelin sheath which insulates the axons that carry information in your brain. This allows information to travel more efficiently. Quality practice should have several characteristics:
1. Target weaknesses at the edge of your ability.
Make sure that you are not just practicing skills that you already know. When you practice, it should be right at the cusp of what you are already able to do and what you are trying to learn but not currently able to do. Practice should feel challenging, and it is a good idea to practice mixed skills instead of always focusing on one skill at a time. Students who practice the current skill they are learning along with previous skills do better on future tests because they must pair each skill with the proper procedure.
Sometimes it is helpful to have the honest feedback of a coach in sports or a teacher or tutor in academics to help analyze your performance and target skills to work on. Deliberate practice means breaking down the big thing you are learning into its parts. So, if you are taking a test, do a practice test and see which skills you are struggling with the most. Focus on learning those skills before taking the whole test again.
2. Focus on the task at hand by minimizing distractions.
We are constantly distracted by our cellphones, Facebook, and other social media. Place all cell phones in a place where you cannot see or hear them while studying. If you need to use your device for studying, use an app like Offtime that blocks other programs and alerts for the time period that you are working.
3. Divide time into multiple daily practice sessions of limited duration.
Practice for short periods of time where you are completely focused, and then take a break. If you work for too long, you will start to feel fatigued and you won’t be able to retain as much. Practicing for long periods of time also leaves you much more prone to distractions.
4. Practice slowly and work up to the speed that you need.
Don’t worry about timing at first, worry about mastering the skill. Once you are able to perform the skill, then start practicing your timing.
5. Practice mentally between actual physical practice sessions.
When you are not practicing, think about what was challenging and mentally rehearse those skills. Chances are that the next time you attempt them, they will seem easier.
The old saying is that “practice makes perfect”. However, it is not just quantity of practice that makes a difference. People who become successful at any skill focus on strategies to make sure that their time is filled with high-quality practice.
About the Author
Nina Parrish is a former special education teacher and a licensed school counselor. She is the owner of Parrish Learning Zone a K-12 tutoring company in Virginia. Her blog The Learning Zone publishes content on education and parenting topics.