In pursuit of learning—achieving expertise or acquiring a new skill—we tend to rely on passive learning strategies such as rereading texts or notes or other forms of basic repetition. But what if there’s a better way…to get better?  Backed by plenty of good science and used by experts across fields, deliberate practice is a powerful learning strategy and game-changer for those of us in search of new learning and improvement. 

AI generated painting of a woman's hands on a piano in the style of the Impressionists

AI-generated painting of a woman’s hands on a piano in the style of the Impressionists (Microsoft CoPilot Designer)

As a former classical pianist and piano teacher, I’m naturally drawn to deliberate practice. While I wasn’t familiar with the term “deliberate practice” years ago, I was more than familiar with practice! I studied under a dozen teachers by the time I was an adult, and each had a different approach to practice. As it turned out, however, they all shared a few common characteristics consistent with deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice?

Deliberate practice is a learning strategy that uses repetition but pairs it with calculated and intentional efforts to improve our performance on a given task. Unlike typical study strategies such as highlighting and rereading, deliberate practice involves goal-setting, practice, feedback, and refinement. We can think of it as four stages that iterate.

  1. Develop a specific goal
  2. Engage in focused practice
  3. Obtain quality feedback
  4. Refine practice (informed by feedback)

Let’s break this down…

  • Develop a specific goal. Deliberate practice works well when goals are clear, specific, and measurable and push us slightly beyond our current capabilities. Perhaps our goal is to be able to conjugate the verb “to be” in French, identify all tools and materials needed to repair a faucet, or explain in accurate detail how a solar eclipse works and why it happens. In my piano practice, a goal might have been something like, “be able to play this set of measures accurately by heart, using correct fingering, phrasing, and pedaling.”
  • Engage in focused practice. Deliberate practice works best when you’re able to concentrate fully on your practice, keeping yourself and your environment free from distractions. Here is where repetition makes sense. You have the goal in mind, you’re set up for maximum engagement, and you’re using repetition to try to achieve that specific goal. 
  • Obtain quality feedback. Deliberate practice works best when feedback is immediate, clear, specific, and descriptive. You’ll need to determine whether you can watch or record yourself and be able to give yourself good feedback, or whether you need a third party like a teacher, coach, peer, or mentor to do this for you. Often, my piano teachers would help me identify where I stumbled or missed a note and tell me to try over-emphasizing the first beat of the measure. It was specific feedback paired with direction for the next step—refining practice. 
  • Refine practice. Deliberate practice works best when we’re able to adjust our approach to each practice set or session based on the feedback we receive. 

From there, it’s back to step one we go! We develop a new goal and engage in deliberate practice until we’re satisfied that we’ve accomplished what we set out to do!

Let’s home in on feedback for a sec:

Feedback plays a critical role in deliberate practice, providing us with key information for improvement. Timely, constructive feedback helps us locate the gaps in our learning and identify areas of weakness. We then use that information to refine our strategies and make incremental improvements. Feedback can come from an instructor, coach, peer who observes our practice, or even through self-assessment, but no matter the source, good feedback is essential for guiding our learning and accelerating our skill development. In this way, feedback maximizes the effectiveness of deliberate practice.

Why is deliberate practice effective?

Much like retrieval practice, deliberate practice is hard work and can be uncomfortable, but it’s this “desirable difficulty” that makes it effective. Deliberate practice pushes us beyond our comfort zones because it illuminates weaknesses and gaps in our learning. But, in doing so, it also helps us focus on areas for improvement and plan future practice sessions.

There’s some good science backing deliberate practice. Cognitive psychology and neuroscience have offered compelling evidence for its effectiveness in many domains—sport, music, and a variety of academic subjects and skills. Our brains respond to deliberate practice, and it’s thought that when we engage in it (similar to when we use other focused learning strategies), we’re strengthening the neural pathways associated with whatever we are learning. And with deliberate practice, we’re likely to be breaking down complex tasks into smaller components, allowing our brains to process and then refine each element more effectively. Over time, these strengthened connections and pathways translate into improved performance and retention.

How can we incorporate deliberate practice into workshops and courses?

Instructors, trainers, and facilitators can use deliberate practice in our work by:

  • Designing specific exercises that allow participants to apply what they’re learning and practice specific skills. Case studies and problem-based learning are especially well-suited for deliberate practice. 
  • Offering high-quality constructive feedback to participants during and after these activities. 
  • Encouraging participants to reflect on and self-assess their progress, especially between practice sessions.
  • We can offer our participants a brief introduction to deliberate practice and a simple framework for continuing to learn this way even after our sessions. 

While deliberate practice is powerful on its own, it is also supercharged by incorporating additional learning strategies—namely retrieval practice, interleaving, and spaced repetition. These learning strategies complement each other by promoting continual active engagement with new material. 

Let’s challenge ourselves to push beyond our comfort zones and embrace the “desirable difficulty” of deliberate practice. Our future selves will certainly thank us.

Interested in a talk or workshop on teaching or learning strategies, or any of the topics I offer? I’d love to chat with you.