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Practise does NOT make perfect

One of the golden threads to all of Elevate’s seminars is the importance of practise. Our research shows that the top students in the country do more practise papers than middle or lower performing students. Further, our research shows that there is a direct relationship between practise and a student’s marks, meaning that the more practise exams a student does, the higher their marks.

But, there is an important caveat here. It isn’t just a case of doing practise. How this practise is done is crucial. It seems that the old adage “practise makes perfect” couldn’t be further from the truth. The problem of practise for practise’s sake was best summed up by Michael Jordan when he said

“If you have bad technique and you shoot a basketball a thousand times, all you are going to get good at, is shooting really badly.”

So the question is: how do students practise in a way that will increase their marks?

Deliberate Practise

At Elevate we suggest using a system known as “deliberate practise”. The term deliberate practise was coined by K Anders Ericsson, one of the world’s leading researchers into the methods behind high performance amongst athletes, musicians, academics and people in a host of other fields. Ericsson found that top performers didn’t excel because they were any smarter or more genetically gifted than their competitors. Instead, he found that high levels of performance were caused specifically by this concept of deliberate practise.

Deliberate practise is very different to what most of us think we are doing when we‘re at the driving range or jamming on a guitar. Deliberate practise has three characteristics:

1. It is designed to enhance performance

The first and most crucial element of deliberate practise is that it is designed to improve our skills, or even more specifically, one single skill at a time, and in doing so improve our overall performance. In other words, we are not simply sitting down to write an essay or do some practise questions, we are seeking to improve one specific aspect of essay writing

This isolation of skills is an important element of training for a sport. Rarely does one go to football or tennis training and just play a match. Instead we tend to spend time practicing isolated skills. For example, at tennis practise we might spend 15 minutes practicing volleying at the net, or at football training we might practise tackling.

Although this is normal when training for a sport, students do the exact opposite when they attempt to practise or train for exams. Instead, they simply sit down and write essays or do Maths questions, the equivalent of simply playing a match

Let’s take English as an example. Writing an essay requires many different skills: structuring an introduction; structuring a paragraph; using compelling evidence; analysing the evidence and using the vocabulary of the subject. Rather than practicing all these skills you might decide to target a specific area you had trouble with in an exam, such as writing a clear introduction for example (check out our English Video Series here).

2. Practise is made up of tasks that can be done repeatedly

Secondly, you want to try and find a set of tasks that you can do repeatedly. Anyone who has played golf knows that hitting a ball well once doesn’t mean that we have mastered the sport of golf. It is the same at school. By repeating the task you are able to evaluate whether you have really improved or not.

More importantly though, repeating the task over and over allows you to develop muscle memory. A top golfer’s swing becomes a subconscious action after a while through the process of constant conditioning and repetition. It is exactly the same for students. This doesn’t mean that our English student from the example above should aim to write the same introduction over and over, but instead they might get four or five practise questions and write a number of different introductions, thereby isolating the skill of writing introductions.

3. Practise has clear outcomes

Thirdly, the task should have a clear outcome or a specific goal. Without this benchmark, you will have no way of ascertaining whether you have actually improved, which after all is the purpose of the practise. So, our English student described above may attempt to get a mark of 80% or an ‘outstanding’ comment from their teacher. Beyond allowing you to evaluate your performance, these goals also help you to develop the motivation to actually do the work.

Immediate Feedback

Immediate feedback is crucial in order to be able to determine whether you are performing the task correctly. By comparing your results with your goal, you can determine whether you have improved. Getting feedback to Maths questions is extremely easy and simply involves looking up the answers at the back of the Maths book. For humanities subjects you may have to give your work to your teacher to get marked.

Feedback does two very important things though. Firstly, if your performance has improved, you will develop a sense of accomplishment that serves to increase motivation. One of the concepts we will be discussing frequently in our articles is the concept of “Small wins”. Small wins are those little accomplishments that make you feel good that you spent the time on a task and encourage you to come back and do it again. This is a simple source of motivation. Secondly, if your marks do not increase, you have the opportunity to consult with your teacher and address the problem.

As noted in our article How smart do you have to be?”, you should not conceptualise your abilities as being finite and you should not think of your ability to do well as being controlled by concepts such as IQ or talent, both of which are out of your hands. Instead, you should focus on the concept of strategies. If you are not doing well, it isn’t because you’re stupid but rather because your strategies are flawed.

Deliberate practise is one of the easiest ways to realise this. By focusing on constantly addressing and improving areas of weakness through deliberate practise you will begin to realise that not only is it possible to improve your marks, but that your potential is far greater than you previously imagined.

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