Episode 2: Deliberate Practice

Image of Helen playing the piano

In the last episode, I looked at the broad characteristics of expertise for teaching in higher education. I suggested a model that comprises three interacting dimensions in the form of a Venn diagram: Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK), Artistry, and Intentional Learning & Development. In this episode, I’m going to explore one approach to ‘intentional learning & development’ which is commonly featured in the expertise literature, that is ‘Deliberate Practice’. As well considering how this might look, I’ll suggest some ideas to get you started in applying this approach to your learning and development for teaching in higher education.

Ericsson (2017) suggested that, in many if not all areas of work and endeavour, most people reach an acceptable level of competence and comfort and then just stay there, with no interest in continuing to improve. This is OK if it works for you and your students but it’s unlikely to be an effective long term strategy. The subject matter may change, the student cohorts certainly will and unexpected events (such as the current Covid pandemic) may force different ways of working. But if you have already developed a mindset for evolving your teaching you will have the tools to help you rapidly adapt. And Ericsson et al (1993)’s idea of Deliberate Practice is one such tool.

Practice, in the sense of rehearsal, is clearly important for many fields and professions. You have to practise the piano, speaking in another language or injecting a needle for example.  This practice can occur in ‘safe’ situations: playing the piano without an audience, chatting with a friend or using a simulated vein. We also hear talk of academic practice, a doctor’s practice, professional practice. In this context, “a professional practitioner is one who encounters certain types of situations again and again” (Schön, 1983, p60). However, simply repeating the same thing again and again will not necessarily lead to expertise. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it makes permanent. Repeating the same thing again and again will mean that you get very confident at doing that thing in that particular way. Which is fine if it’s correct and continues to work. If it’s wrong or stops working, it can then be extremely difficult to unlearn and relearn a different way; you have to break down the neural pathways and rebuild them in a different configuration. So practice has to be thoughtful, considered, planned and, in that way, each situation encounter, each classroom experience becomes an opportunity for Deliberate Practice.

What is deliberate practice?

In the words of Ericsson et al in their 1993 seminal paper: “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” (page 368). So the practice, or the way the situation is addressed in its next encounter, is deliberately and intentionally planned, rather than just being a mindless repetition. In their description, Ericsson et al set out the three constraints which limit individuals from achieving expert performance: resource, motivation and effort. However, these constraints can be reconceptualised as the factors required to improve practice and develop expertise.

Resources

Learning and development can’t happen overnight nor in a vacuum. The development of expertise takes considerable time. Research indicates that, for many fields, a minimum of ten years practice is required to achieve world class levels of achievement. Particular physiological or cognitive characteristics (natural talent) may give some individuals an advantage, but Deliberate Practice is seen as the defining factor for developing higher levels of performance. If sufficient time is taken, expertise can be developed by all, and each day that goes by will see small improvements along the way.

As well as time, the other resources required are learning materials and access to a teacher or coach. Of course, it is possible to learn something entirely independently, but a teacher, mentor or coach will be invaluable for providing feedback and steering you in the appropriate direction. Feedback is key to Deliberate Practice; we need to know, see or hear how we are performing in order to identify where improvements are required and whether our practice is improving our performance. In music, this feedback might come from you recording yourself playing and listening back, or a friend or teacher listening and telling you what they hear, or even from an audience reaction to a formal performance. In sport, feedback comes from how you feel, comments from your coach, how well you interact with team-mates, or how you perform versus competitors. Taking on board and responding to feedback is essential to practice that is deliberate, rather than mindless repetition.

Learning materials can take many forms. They might be a text, video or audio with information and guidance; or perhaps specific tools, exercises or activities to help hone your skill; or maybe just be a quiet space to think and plan.

But even with all these tangible resources available, it may not be possible to practise and improve if the environment is not conducive. For young people, their family or close community must be supportive and willing to take them to their practice spaces or provide appropriate resources at home. For professionals, a culture of learning and development within the workplace is necessary if the majority are to be motivated to practise and improve rather than just a self-driven minority.

Motivation

Given the resources that are required to engage in Deliberate Practice, you have to be highly motivated to persist throughout your career to develop and maintain expertise. As will be discussed in a later episode, this motivation can be extrinsic and/or intrinsic and is strongly influenced, positively or negatively, by the people and environment around you. As Ericsson et al (1993, page 368-369) suggest: “The lack of inherent reward or enjoyment in practice as distinct from the enjoyment of the result is consistent with the fact that individuals in a domain rarely initiate practice spontaneously.

Sustainable Effort

So it’s important to acknowledge that Deliberate Practice takes effort, be it cognitive and/or physical. In order to maintain motivation and the ability to practise, it should be limited to frequent but sustainable efforts. In many if not all fields, better progression can be achieved through small amounts of practice every day rather than long practice sessions undertaken once every few weeks or so. A habit of frequent practice is also easier to integrate into the day-to-day such that it becomes part of one’s work rather than a burdensome add-on.

What does Deliberate Practice of teaching look like in higher education?

Deliberate Practice, is about intentionally considering how you teach rather than just doing the same thing again and again. Practice, in the sense of rehearsal, is more problematic for teaching than for, say, music or sport. Whilst you can run through a talk a few times, it’s much harder to rehearse something more interactive. And, even with a talk, something unexpected will always happen that you can’t necessarily prepare thoroughly for such as a surprising question or a technological glitch. So, whilst you can prepare and plan your teaching session, you can’t practise it in the same way that e.g. a violinist in a string quartet might. Rather, you can prepare the broad structure but the performance is much more like a player in a jazz band who uses what they know to respond to the other musicians rather than exactly reproducing what they had perfected in rehearsal. After, or even during, the performance they will consider what went well and what could be improved. This then provides the focus for further practice. Exactly the same process occurs in teaching: after the session, or even during, you consider what worked well and where you might need to make small changes to help improve students’ learning and understanding. You then intentionally apply this to the planning of your next session such that “daily experiences in the classroom can become a site for deliberate practice” (Stigler & Miller, 2018, pp 447-448).

Once you have identified something in your teaching that you want to focus on improving, there are a wealth of resources available to help you. Feedback is available from many different sources: your students, peers and your own self-evaluations. Feedback can help you both identify the focus for your Deliberate Practice and inform you of whether the changes you plan are likely to be effective. If you are doing a PGCert or other course for new lecturers, it’s likely that you will be involved in peer observation – colleagues will observe and feedback on your teaching and also you may get the opportunity to observe, feedback to and learn from others. One of the most useful sources of feedback, particularly when you are thinking about your teaching and how to make small changes, is conversation with colleagues. In my research interviews, a National Teaching Fellowship-winning psychology lecturer shared their view on the importance of conversation: “I share an office with X … and we have been in the same office together for 11 years and we talk about our teaching all the time. I think you have to really, really have to have the space to reflect on it.  I think the emotional labour of teaching is massive and I think there is very, very little opportunity for people to exercise and talk about their experiences unless you happen to make that relationship.”

The importance of a teacher, mentor or coach is emphasised in research on Deliberate Practice and the development of expertise. If you are taking a formal qualification in teaching in higher education, make the most of any tutor support available not just to understand the needs of the course but to explore your own teaching and how you might improve it. Alternatively, you may have a formal mentor or buddy to support you in your new role – be proactive in going to them to chat about your teaching experiences. If you have neither of these support mechanisms provided for you, then seek out a colleague with whom you can informal conversations about teaching – they might be someone you share an office with, someone recommended by your Head of Department, or even a colleague at another institution that you know through your research or professional practice.

These professional conversations will enable you to plan and practise deliberately through taking an evidence-informed approach, rather than just basing your plans on your own personal ideas and experiences. There are also many other ways in which you gather ideas and evidence to inform your Deliberate Practice and a suggested list of these is provided in my Expertise Guide.

The others elements of Deliberate Practice, motivation and sustainable effort, will be discussed in a later episode, including tips and strategies. Newer teachers are likely to have significant extrinsic motivation in the form of probationary requirements, student evaluation targets and other formal expectations of your improving performance. Intrinsic motivation may come from a desire to feel more comfortable teaching or to do your best to facilitate your students’ learning. If you are taking a formal teaching course, you may have assignments or activities that will provide deadlines or goals to help structure your Deliberate Practice. The institutional culture and climate in which you work will also have a strong influence, depending on whether or not it is conducive to encouraging teaching and teacher development. Whether or not you have these external factors influencing your teaching development, integrating and conceptualising Deliberate Practice as part your everyday teaching work and not an add-on, will help you to manage your workload. Particularly when you are newer to teaching, small and frequent applications of Deliberate Practice can be more effective and time efficient. Though there may be times when you want or need to make much larger changes to your teaching. In this case, having already developed a Deliberate Practice approach will give you the flexibility and resources to respond to bigger challenges.

Applying Deliberate Practice to Your Teaching

Deliberate Practice is about taking small steps to develop your teaching with the intentional goal of wanting to improve. It is a process of identifying a specific focus for improvement, undertaking activities that will provide evidence to inform a change to your teaching (including gathering and responding to feedback), then applying and evaluating that change. You will also greatly benefit from support from a tutor, mentor, coach or buddy to help provide feedback and discuss your ideas. If this process sounds familiar, you may have encountered it in the similar model of experiential learning proposed by Kolb (1984). The Deliberate Practice model goes further by identifying the particular conditions that are required to enable it to happen effectively. Check out my Expertise Guide for a one page activity guide to Deliberate Practice for teaching in higher education.

Final Word

Remember that developing expertise takes time. Taking small steps will add up to greater confidence and improved teaching (and learning). Sometimes the change may be so subtle that you may not notice a difference on a day-to-day basis. One of the benefits of taking a structured approach to your development and in writing down where you want to improve, is that you can review this in a year or more’s time and see how far you have come.

As you become more experienced and you develop your confidence and skill in teaching, you will find that things you previously had to think hard about and carefully plan and prepare for now become much less effortful and much more automatic. This is all part of the process of developing expertise. The idea of Deliberate Practice is based on the journey taken by a novice as they develop mastery; a later episode, on progressive problem-solving, will look at a model of expertise development based on the comparison of experts with experienced non-experts, and how they utilise the time freed up by the automation of skills.

In later episodes we’ll also explore different ways of conceptualising intentional learning & development to help you better integrate it into your wider academic practice, including relating it to concepts of career narratives (CPD as a story), and reflective practice (CPD as research).

Thanks for reading! In the next episode I will be discussing an element of Artistry in Teaching and how Patsy Rodenburg’s 3 circles of presence might be applied to improve student engagement. Don’t forget, you can access a podcast version of this blog in my Expertise Guide.

References

Ericsson, K.A. (2017) Expertise and individual differences: the search for the structure and acquisition of experts’ superior performance. WIREs Cogn Sci, Vol.8

Ericsson, K.A., Krampe, R. Th. & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. Psychological Review, Vol. 100(3), pp 363-406

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Prentice Hall, New Jersey

Schön, D. (1982) The Reflective Practitioner: how professionals think in action. Routledge, London

Stigler, J.W. & Miller, K.F. (2018) Expertise and expert performance in teaching. In:Ericsson, K.A., R.R.Hoffman, Kozbelt, A. & Williams, A.M. (Eds.) The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (2nd Edition). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 

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