Make Student Practice Deliberate and Worth the Effort


Make Student Practice Deliberate and Worth the Effort

Ask any all-star athlete, world-class musician, or expert craftsman about how they rose to the top of their field. One word will always appear – practice. It takes repetition and sustained engagement to yield growth.

However, today’s educators face a climate where, in many cases, homework has become a dirty word. Teachers assign assignments to be completed outside of class that return incomplete, rushed, or not at all. Similarly, tutors face parents who are frustrated with a lack of progress but are unwilling to hold children accountable for effort between sessions.

How, then, can educators bridge the gap between students who need practice and an educational shift away from the traditional means of assigning it?

While elements like a lack of effort or failed accountability may play their parts, the real problem may be with the practice itself. For educators to promote buy-in for work outside of the instructional setting, the key is replacing rote, repetitive practice with deliberate practice.

Peak growth during and between sessions happens when students are tasked with deliberate practice that is relevant, engaging, and supported.

Practice has to matter

Many teachers and tutors ascribe to the motto that any practice is good practice. While there may be some truth in that statement, deliberate practice is always better practice.

Deliberate practice tasks students with strengthening their existing skills while also improving the application and range of their skills. These are no small feats. It takes a lot more time, energy, and focus to complete tasks tailored to these aims than it does to scribble down answers on a printout.

A major difference between practice and deliberate practice hinges upon a student’s felt need to engage. Simply doing something for doing’s sake lacks authenticity and hamstrings progress.

For instance, when I was in grade school, our math and English curricula both leaned heavily on constant skill drills. Each day there was a new worksheet of math problems to grind through and textbook pages of incomplete sentences to copy down and correct.

My practice efforts were seldom my best. I was simply being compliant – duty-bound to finish my practice problems and grammar work. I did the work because I was expected to do so, not because I was challenged to strengthen my skills toward a meaningful objective or potential usefulness. I learned, but not nearly as much as I could have.

In contrast, when practice was tied authentically to real-world applications, both my engagement and understanding improved dramatically. I still remember connections and mental math strategies I discovered while grocery shopping with my mom, playing card games with my grandfather, and participating in Mr. Brennan’s simulated classroom tollbooth activity.

While each activity likely involved just as many calculations as a page of math problems, they each also involved purposeful relevance for using and strengthening skills. With repetition in these contexts, my mental math skills improved at a much faster rate.

Students need to have meaningful practice opportunities that serve an understood purpose and promote high levels of agency and engagement.

Deliberate practice has to be supported

For students to be able to engage with these types of deliberate academic and skill-based practice, they need some help. Ideally, students should be regularly working within their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This concept, popularized by educational psychologist Lev Vygotsky, theorizes that optimal learning happens when a student engages with a challenge that is just out of reach, but is able to be achieved with some scaffolded support from someone more knowledgeable.

For this reason, educators need to form deliberate practice opportunities in such a way that they include support from a Vygotskian “knowledgeable expert.”

The dilemma is that when students are given tasks to complete independently, there is no guarantee that they will have adults or peers at the ready to help if a struggle should arise. Educators must fill this need. Screencasts, lesson videos, solution explanations are all ways to ensure students have access to necessary help and guidance even if they are working independently.

Ultimately, teachers and tutors must ensure support materials are both available and accessible during deliberate practice so that stumbling points don’t become stopping points. Students must have the tools to grapple with the struggle and create their path forward.

An alternative approach is the flipped learning model. Rather than using class time or tutoring sessions to teach lessons and then sending students to practice independently, the roles are flipped (hence the name). Students engage with the instructional material on their own through readings, videos, or exploratory work so that time spent with educators can be used for supported, higher-level, deliberate practice.

Of course, if students are not held accountable for their knowledge-building responsibilities, the entire model can be an exercise in futility. As such, the flipped model may not be the perfect match for every learner.

Regardless, the ideal learning experience requires support. When students have access to the guidance of an expert, the scaffolding serves as a key to reaching greater heights.

Practice has to be crafted

Practice time in today’s world competes with distractions and disruptions on a level unknown to previous generations of students. As such, deliberate practice needs to be designed to compete.

If educators expect students to invest time and energy into additional practice, it must be tied to a meaningful and relevant result. Support has to be baked in. Moreover, the process itself needs to be crafted in such a way that growth is embedded in the process and is not simply the destination.

Some strategies educators can use to create better deliberate practice opportunities include:

  • Remove the ceiling of “acceptable” – Improvement should never have a finish line. Create activities where students are challenged to continually improve towards greater goals rather than clear a standardized bar of achievement.
  • Constant feedback and assessment – Students must be able to identify mistakes (either with an expert’s help or on their own) and create solutions. It is in this problem solving where students take ownership. As such, purposeful practice should include tight feedback loops and embrace the struggle of grappling with failures in a safe, fearless way.
  • Borrow from the “5 hour rule – Give students opportunities to read, reflect, and experiment rather than a workbook page.
  • Use experts as the model – Show students how the best in the field practice and use their methods as a framework for your own planning.

When educators are able to add relevance, promote engagement, and provide support to students, practice becomes deliberate practice. Students have a purpose that promotes ownership and intrinsic motivation to improve. All told, learning and growth are achieved at a much more substantial level in a way that continues both inside and outside of the formal learning environment.

How do you promote deliberate practice with your students? Share your advice and ideas with our readers in the comments below and on social media!

About Sheldon S

Sheldon Soper is a ten year veteran of the teaching profession and currently serves as a junior high school teacher in southern New Jersey. His primary focus is building reading, writing, and research skills in his students. He holds two degrees from Rutgers University: a B.A. in History as well as a M.Ed. in Elementary Education. He holds teaching certifications in English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Elementary Education. Sheldon has also worked as a tutor for grades ranging from second through high school in a wide variety of subjects including reading, writing, calculus, chemistry, algebra, and test prep. In addition to his teaching career, Sheldon is also a content writer for a variety of education, technology, and parenting websites.