Deliberate Practice: The Most Effective Form of Active Learning

by Justin Skycak on

Deliberate practice is the most effective form of active learning. It consists of individualized training activities specially chosen to improve specific aspects of a student's performance through repetition and successive refinement. It is the opposite of mindless repetition. The amount of deliberate practice has been shown to be one of the most prominent underlying factors responsible for individual differences in performance across numerous fields, even among highly talented elite performers. Deliberate practice demands effort and intensity, and may be discomforting, but its long-term commitment compounds incremental improvements, leading to expertise.

This post is part of the book The Math Academy Way: Using the Power of Science to Supercharge Student Learning (Working Draft, Jan 2024). Suggested citation: Skycak, J., advised by Roberts, J. (2024). Deliberate Practice: The Most Effective Form of Active Learning. In The Math Academy Way: Using the Power of Science to Supercharge Student Learning (Working Draft, Jan 2024). https://justinmath.com/deliberate-practice-the-most-effective-form-of-active-learning/


While active learning leads to significantly better educational outcomes than passive learning, not all active learning strategies are created equal. The most effective type of active learning is deliberate practice, which consists of individualized training activities specially chosen to improve specific aspects of a student’s performance through repetition and successive refinement.

Deliberate practice is the opposite of mindless repetition, and it has been shown to be one of the most prominent underlying factors responsible for individual differences in performance, even among highly talented elite performers (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993). K. Anders Ericsson, first author of that study and one of the most influential researchers in the field of human expertise and performance, elaborates further on what it means to engage in deliberate practice (Ericsson, 2006):

  • "The core assumption of deliberate practice (Ericsson, 1996, 2002, 2004; Ericsson et al., 1993) is that expert performance is acquired gradually and that effective improvement of performance requires the opportunity to find suitable training tasks that the performer can master sequentially -- typically the design of training tasks and monitoring of the attained performance is done by a teacher or a coach.

    Deliberate practice presents performers with tasks that are initially outside their current realm of reliable performance, yet can be mastered within hours of practice by concentrating on critical aspects and by gradually refining performance through repetitions after feedback.

    Hence, the requirement for concentration sets deliberate practice apart from both mindless, routine performance and playful engagement, as the latter two types of activities would, if anything, merely strengthen the current mediating cognitive mechanisms rather than modify them to allow increases in the level of performance."

Ericsson offers (2003, pp.72-73) a concrete and familiar example illustrating the distinction between deliberate and non-deliberate practice in the context of music:

  • "As children, many people may have spent a lot of time practicing the piano with modest improvements, or known other people who did. When parents forced them to practice, many piano students would simply play the same piece repeatedly without full concentration on specific aspects of their performance. Under those circumstances the existing performance level becomes only more stable and 'practice' makes it permanent. The relation between current level of performance and the number of hours of 'practice' is weak for this type of beginner (Lehmann, 1997).

    Successful practice requires identifying specific goals for how to change the performance. ... Most deliberate practice by music students is solitary as they attempt to master specific assignments, often new pieces of music selected by their teachers to be of an appropriate difficulty level. Musicians will encounter difficult passages while mastering a new piece of music. To achieve mastery, the musician first identifies the source of the problem, often by playing the passage in a slow tempo. ... With focused repetitions the pianist will generally reach mastery.

    Sometimes the pianist will still experience difficulties and work on specific exercises that eventually lead to desired changes. In music, there is a large body of training techniques that have been designed to help musicians develop control over performance and attain the desired speed and dexterity. The use of techniques designed to overcome weaknesses and increase control exemplifies the essence of deliberate practice."

Below is another example, also offered by Ericsson and colleagues, illustrating deliberate practice the context of athletics (Plant et al., 2005):

  • "...[M]any people know recreational golf and tennis players whose performance has not improved in spite of 20–30 years of active participation. The mere act of regularly engaging in an activity for years and even decades does not appear to lead to improvements in performance, once an acceptable level of performance has been attained (Ericsson, 2002).

    For example, if someone misses a backhand volley during a tennis game, there may be a long time before the same person gets another chance at that same type of shot. When the chance finally comes, they are not prepared and are likely to miss a similar shot again. In contrast, a tennis coach can give tennis players repeated opportunities to hit backhand volleys that are progressively more challenging and eventually integrated into representative match play.

    However, unlike recreational play, such deliberate practice requires high levels of concentration with few outside distractions and is not typically spontaneous but carefully scheduled (Ericsson, 1996, 2002). A tennis player who takes advantage of this instruction and then engages in particular practice activities recommended by the teacher for a couple of hours in deeply focused manner (deliberate practice), may improve specific aspects of his or her game more than he or she otherwise might experience after many years of recreational play."

Deliberate Practice is Effective, Non-Deliberate Practice is Not

It’s important to realize that the effects of deliberate practice hold across a wide variety of domains, not just music and athletics. As summarized by Reeves (2014):

  • "Since the original presentation of deliberate practice, the theory has been tested and applied to a number of domains. Ericsson originally speculated that deliberate practice would be of particular value in domains such as: chess, sports, mathematics, and sciences (Ericsson 1993). He has personally investigated a number of these domains and their relationship to deliberate practice. Domains in which he found significant evidence of deliberate practice being a predictor of elite level of expertise include: problem-solving, dart throwing, rhythmic gymnastics, golf, education, nursing, medical expertise, interpreting, and golf (Ericsson 1993, Ericsson 2000a, Ericsson 2000b, Ericsson 2007a, Ericsson 2007b, Ericsson 2007c, Ericsson 2008a, Ericsson 2008b).

    Additionally, other academicians have taken this theory and successfully applied it to other domains as well. Most recently, deliberate practice was found to be an effective tool for enhancing microsurgical skills in surgeons (El Tecle 2013) as well as hysteroscopy skills in obstetrics and gynecology residents (Rackow 2012). Outside of medicine, deliberate practice has been shown to be significant in accelerating a wide variety of other skills, including: knowledge development (Pachman 2013), critical thinking skills (Cahill 2012), team sports (Helson 1998), chess (Charness 2005), and advanced writing skills (Kellogg 2009) among others."

The effectiveness of deliberate practice, and the ineffectiveness of non-deliberate practice, is so strong that metrics of professional experience that combine the two (such as “years of experience”) have been found to only weakly predict actual performance – whereas, on its own, the amount of purely deliberate practice is a much stronger predictor. As summarized by Ericsson (2008):

  • "Traditionally, professional expertise has been judged by length of experience, reputation, and perceived mastery of knowledge and skill. Unfortunately, recent research demonstrates only a weak relationship between these indicators of expertise and actual, observed performance. In fact, observed performance does not necessarily correlate with greater professional experience.

    Expert performance can, however, be traced to active engagement in deliberate practice (DP), where training (often designed and arranged by their teachers and coaches) is focused on improving particular tasks. DP also involves the provision of immediate feedback, time for problem-solving and evaluation, and opportunities for repeated performance to refine behavior."

Along these lines, Lehtinen et al. (2017) emphasize that in the context of academics in particular, quantity of study time is not by itself a strong predictor of academic improvement – rather, the quality of study time is the critical determinant.

  • "It is important to note that it is 'deliberate' practice that matters, not just any practice. For example, Plant, Ericsson, Hill, and Asberg (2005) found that improvement in performance in higher education did not significantly correlate with the amount of time spent studying. It did, however, relate to concentrated learning aimed at specific performance goals."

Furthermore, Debatin et al. (2023) note that high-quality deliberate practice requires complete individualization, an aspect that is sometimes overlooked even by academics in the field:

  • "...[Some] authors have neglected the most important characteristic of deliberate practice: individualization of practice. Many of the analyzed effect sizes derived from measures that did not assess individualized practice and, therefore, should not have been included in meta-analyses of deliberate practice.
    ...
    In our study of 178 chess players, we found that at a high level of individualization and quality of practice, the effect size of structured practice was more than three times higher than that found at the average level."

Intuitively, the specific aspects of performance that one student is most in need of refining will generally be different for another student, meaning that the most effective exercises on which to spend practice time will differ from student to student.

Effort and Discomfort are Required


Cycle of Strain and Adaptation

As Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer (1993) describe, deliberate practice requires intense, near-maximal-effort training. The goal is to push the limit of one’s performance capacity forward during each practice session.

  • "Deliberate practice aimed at improving strength and endurance in sports clearly shows the importance of near maximal effort during practice and the resulting fatigue. Physical activity and exercise produce no benefit unless they are sufficiently intense ... elite athletes train at much higher intensities to improve their performance."

This creates a continual cycle of strain and adaptation. As Ericsson (2006) elaborates:

  • "Measurable increases in physical fitness do not simply result from wishful thinking. Instead people have to engage in intense aerobic exercise that pushes them well beyond the level of comfortable physical activity if they are to improve their aerobic fitness (Ericsson, 2003a; Ericsson et al., 1993; Robergs & Roberts, 1997).
    ...
    When the human body is put under exceptional strain, a range of dormant genes in the DNA are expressed and extraordinary physiological processes are activated. Over time the cells of the body, including the brain (see Hill & Schneider, Chapter 37) will reorganize in response to the induced metabolic demands of the activity by, for example, increases in the number of capillaries supplying blood to muscles and changes in metabolism of the muscle fibers themselves.

    These adaptations will eventually allow the individual to execute the given level of activity without greatly straining the physiological systems. To gain further beneficial increases in adaptation, the athletes need to increase or change their weekly training activities to induce new and perhaps different types of strain on the key physiological systems."

Even in contexts outside of sports, these adaptations can be detected as physical changes in the brain:

  • "...[A]thletic training involves pushing the associated physiological systems outside the comfort zone to stimulate physiological growth and adaptation (Ericsson, 2001, 2002, 2003a, 2003c, 2003d). Furthermore, recent reviews (Gaser & Schlaug, 2003; Hill & Schneider, Chapter 37; Kolb & Whishaw, 1998) show that the function and structure of the brain is far more adaptable than previously thought possible.

    Especially, early and extended training has shown to change the cortical mapping of musicians (Elbert, Pantev, Wienbruch, Rockstoh, & Taub, 1995), the development of white matter in the brain (Bengtsson et al., 2005), the development of "turn out" of ballet dancers, the development of perfect pitch, and flexibility of fingers (Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996).

    In sum, elite performers search continuously for optimal training activities, with the most effective duration and intensity, that will appropriately strain the targeted physiological system to induce further adaptation without causing overuse and injury."

Discomfort is Required

Deliberate practice requires repeatedly practicing skills that are beyond one’s repertoire. However, this tends to be more effortful and less enjoyable, which can mislead non-experts to practice within their level of comfort.

For instance, this was observed as a factor differentiating intermediate and expert Gaeilic football players (Coughlan et al., 2014):

  • "Expert and intermediate level Gaelic football players executed two types of kicks during an acquisition phase and pre-, post-, and retention tests. During acquisition, participants self-selected how they practiced and rated the characteristics of deliberate practice for effort and enjoyment.

    The expert group predominantly practiced the skill they were weaker at and improved its performance across pre-, post- and retention tests. Participants in the expert group also rated their practice as more effortful and less enjoyable compared to those in the intermediate group.

    In contrast, participants in the intermediate group predominantly practiced the skill they were stronger at and improved their performance from pretest to posttest but not on the retention test."

Likewise, as described by Ericsson (2006) in the context of singing:

  • "In a recent study of singers Grape, Sandgren, Hansson, Ericsson, and Theorell (2003) revealed reliable differences of skill in the level of physiological and psychological indicators of concentration and effort during a singing lesson.

    Whereas the amateur singers experienced the lesson as self-actualization and an enjoyable release of tension, the professional singers increased their concentration and focused on improving their performance during the lesson."

And as Lehtinen et al. (2017) elaborate:

  • "The 'art of deliberate practice' obviously includes the ability and willingness to conduct highly concentrated activities which might be, to some degree, aversive in nature. For example, maximal capacity training in running is demanding and situationally unpleasant even for world-class runners, but it is undeniably a necessary part of running training.
    ...
    However, less experienced individuals like novices tend to focus their practice on more pleasant levels of effort. For example, unexperienced musicians often practice pieces (or parts of pieces) which they have already mastered. They try to avoid errors and failures and they do not challenge their own learning. It is in response to this that trainers/mentors/guides etc. are most valuable.
    ...
    In the realm of mathematics education, a distinction should also be made between routine practice with existing skills and the types of deliberate practice that push students to develop their emerging skills and knowledge structures. ... In geometry learning, Pachman, Sweller, and Kalyuga (2013) ... found that more knowledgeable students even tended to choose achievable rather than difficult problems if they had the opportunity to choose. Training with these geometrical tasks resulted in minimal performance improvements. Only when a deliberate practice model was applied and these more knowledgeable students were presented with designer-selected difficult problems to solve did their skills improve."

Long-Term Compounding


Expertise is the Product of Incremental Improvements Over Time

Lehtinen et al. (2017) are careful to note that a single round of deliberate practice will not result in instant expertise – rather, it is the compounding of these incremental improvements over a longer period of time that lead someone to become an expert:

  • "The formation of expert-like practice activities is not a single event, but a long process in itself. The acquisition of high level competence in complex domains such as mathematics is a laborious process that needs deliberate practice during a number of years."

Anderson, Reder, & Simon (1998) elaborate further:

  • "...[U]nderstanding of a domain does not come in one fell swoop of insight but is built up bit by bit over time.

    For example, to say that a student has understood a concept such as fractions means that the student can use that knowledge flexibly in many situations. Thus, the student can figure out how much pizza each of three children will get if they have to share half a pizza; the student will recognize that, when thirty-five people must be transported by busses that each hold twenty people, two buses are required, not one-and-three-quarters; the student can explain why one inverts a fraction to divide by it; and so on. A child does not suddenly acquire the ability to do all of this.

    The belief in moments of transformation in education is undoubtedly linked to the old belief in developmental psychology that children transit abruptly between stages. ... Instead, as R. S. Siegler documents with great care, development is always gradual and continuous. The same is true of education."

Consequently, as Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer (1993) emphasize, long-term motivation and commitment are essential:

  • "...[D]eliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Individuals are motivated to practice because practice improves performance. ... Thus, an understanding of the long-term consequences of deliberate practice is important."

Motivational Supplements are Not Substitutes for Deliberate Practice

To this end, classroom activities that are enjoyable, collaborative, and non-repetitive (such as group discussions and freeform/unstructured project-based or discovery learning) can sometimes be useful for increasing student motivation and softening the discomfort associated with deliberate practice.

However, it’s important to realize that these activities are only supplements, not substitutes, for deliberate practice. Unlike deliberate practice, they do not directly move the needle on student performance – rather, they “grease the wheels” and reduce psychological friction during the process of deliberate practice. Performance improvements come directly from deliberate practice, but occasional motivational activities can inspire students to continue engaging in deliberate practice over the long term even when it feels difficult and uncomfortable.

Again, this is perhaps most obvious in the contexts of music and athletics:

  • Musicians often enjoy fiddling around on their instruments and jamming with friends in a freestyle, creative way. These are fun activities that can enhance motivation and sometimes produce creative ideas that can be integrated into their defining style as artists. But elite musicians know that an even more central component of their practice routine is consistently pushing themselves beyond their repertoire, using intensely focused effort to gain new skills and improve specific areas of weakness through repetition and successive refinement.
  • Athletes often enjoy the camaraderie of team bonding activities, which might include "trick shot" competitions, group discussions about team goals and individual expectations, and exchanging stories and perspectives over team dinners. Again, these are fun activities that can help teammates fuel their passion for the game and feel connected to one another. However, elite athletes know that at the end of the day, their performance on the field comes from routinely pushing their physiological and mental limits every day during practice, where they focus intensely on gaining new skills and improving specific areas of weakness through repetition and successive refinement.

As is said about famous basketball player Kobe Bryant (Cacciola, 2020):

  • "At the team's pre-Olympic training camp the following summer, Bryant was the first player to arrive. In fact, he beat most members of the coaching staff -- and was getting in workouts at 5:30 a.m. ... The foundation for all of Bryant's feats -- the 81-point game, the scoring titles, the series-clinching jump shots, the three championships he had already won with the Lakers -- was his work ethic and desire. The spectacular was rooted in the mundane, in the monotony of hard labor."

The overall takeaway from this post is that by engaging in deliberate practice in mathematics, you will gain the ability to reason coherently and solve problems in levels of math that you were previously unable to comprehend. But as any personal trainer will tell you: if you want to achieve your goals, you have to put in the work. Excellence is the product of effective training over a long period of time, and effective training requires intense effort focused in areas beyond your repertoire.

References

Anderson, J. R., Reder, L. M., Simon, H. A., Ericsson, K. A., & Glaser, R. (1998). Radical constructivism and cognitive psychology. Brookings papers on education policy, (1), 227-278.

Cacciola, S. (2020). How Kobe Bryant Created His Own Olympic Dream Team. New York Times.

Coughlan, E. K., Williams, A. M., McRobert, A. P., & Ford, P. R. (2014). How experts practice: A novel test of deliberate practice theory. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40(2), 449.

Debatin, T., Hopp, M. D., Vialle, W., & Ziegler, A. (2023). The meta-analyses of deliberate practice underestimate the effect size because they neglect the core characteristic of individualization – An analysis and empirical evidence. Current Psychology, 42(13), 10815-10825.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Römer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological review, 100(3), 363.

Ericsson, K. A. (2003). The acquisition of expert performance as problem solving: Construction and modification of mediating mechanisms through deliberate practice. The psychology of problem solving, 31-83.

Ericsson, K. A. (2006). The influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance. The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance, 38(685-705), 2-2.

Ericsson, K. A. (2008). Deliberate practice and acquisition of expert performance: a general overview. Academic emergency medicine, 15(11), 988-994.

Lehtinen, E., Hannula-Sormunen, M., McMullen, J., & Gruber, H. (2017). Cultivating mathematical skills: From drill-and-practice to deliberate practice. ZDM, 49, 625-636.

Plant, E. A., Ericsson, K. A., Hill, L., & Asberg, K. (2005). Why study time does not predict grade point average across college students: Implications of deliberate practice for academic performance. Contemporary educational psychology, 30(1), 96-116.

Reeves, W. R. (2014). Creativity as a learned skill: The role of deliberate practice in the development of creativity (Doctoral dissertation).

Additional Reading

Clear, J. The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice. JamesClear.com.

Ericsson, K. A., Prietula, M. J., & Cokely, E. T. (2007). The making of an expert. Harvard business review, 85(7/8), 114.

Parrish, S. The Ultimate Deliberate Practice Guide: How to Be the Best. FS.blog.


This post is part of the book The Math Academy Way: Using the Power of Science to Supercharge Student Learning (Working Draft, Jan 2024). Suggested citation: Skycak, J., advised by Roberts, J. (2024). Deliberate Practice: The Most Effective Form of Active Learning. In The Math Academy Way: Using the Power of Science to Supercharge Student Learning (Working Draft, Jan 2024). https://justinmath.com/deliberate-practice-the-most-effective-form-of-active-learning/