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Deliberate Practice - Key to success in exams

Updated: Apr 2, 2021

Heard of deliberate practice ?

If you haven't, you must ! For ages this is known to humans, as a technique to master new skills. New research is giving insights into why some people are better at certain skills than others. The science of expertise, as it is also known, is an area of research that focuses on why some people have extraordinary abilities. And results of latest research is mind boggling. People are not gifted in a particular trade or science, but they have a history of hard work and practice behind their perfection !

Let's try and understand this concept of developing new skills first.

If you want to learn to play piano, what should you do ? Probably meet a good teacher as first step, and understand the theory of keys and notes. But only understanding the theory will not make you a great pianist. You probably won't even be able to play simple things just by learning theory. So, next, the teacher will make you actually play the piano. With few days of practice, hopefully you will be able to play some music. But does that make you an expert ? Are you ready to compete and play with top 1% piano players in the world ? Absolutely not. Here the difference. The top players have years of practice behind them. They have perfected it every single day. By playing different musical notes, in different settings, different tempo and rhythm. If you want to take up playing piano as profession, or be as good as top 2% piano players, you have to put in years of practice.

The research on learning and expertise goes back many decades. Sir Francis Galton was the first scientist to investigate the possibility that excellence in diverse fields and domains has a common set of causes. Galton (1869/1979) argued that eminence was a virtually inevitable consequence of inherited "natural ability". He showed an association between "eminent people" and "close relatives" of eminent people thereby suggesting that there is a hereditary aspect to success, and you have to be gifted to succeed. Interestingly, Galton drew a direct analogy to improvement of mental powers through studying and education. In his view, hereditary factors determine the limit of the attainable performance for a given individual. More modern research has since then proven Galton's results not to be true, and that success is attainable by everyone if right strategies are followed.


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Here is the twist. If heredity determines ability to learn and maximum performance, it is reasonable to assume that genetic factors can not be influenced by practice and training. That definitely is counter-intuitive. Early studies have shown practice and training do improve performance. Does that mean we have an upper cap of our gifted intellect, and no matter what, we can not breach that glass ceiling ? No, but let us examine this.

If IQ is taken as a measure of one's mental and intellectual ability, and if performance or learning depends upon this mental & intellectual gift, there should be direct correlation between successful people in various fields and their IQ levels. The higher IQ, should be mandatory prerequisite for success. However, the relation of IQ to exceptional performance is rather weak in many domains, including music (Shuter-Dyson, 1982) and chess (Doll & Mayr, 1987). For scientists, engineers, and medical doctors that complete the required education and training, the correlations between ability measures and occupational success are only around 0.2, accounting for only 4% of the variance (Baird, 1985). What is the missing link then ?

The missing link is this.

You may have a very high IQ but you still have to study hard. Your IQ may help you grasp things faster, but you will need to put years of hard practice. Because you are competing in real world, and there are people with IQs lower than yours but putting 10 times more effort than you. Who do you think will succeed ?

Does repetition help ? Reading same book a hundred times helps ? Evidence shows that you will gain initially, but will soon reach the upper limit. That is probably the reason that just by repeating the same activity hundreds of times is not what you want. Then what is meaning of practice ? The fastest rate of typing in the World Championship in typing increased from 82 words per minute in 1904 to 147 words per minute in 1923—an improvement of 80%. What is improving this performance ? The fact that there is a championship drives people to do more, it drives people to excel. The urge to win makes them practice more. But at the same time, the practice has to be more directed, controlled and scientific. It is not just simple repetitions. In their classic study of expertise in chess, Simon and Chase (1973) observed that nobody had attained the level of an international chess master (grandmaster) "with less than about a decade's intense preparation with the game". So next time you look at any of those grandmasters, think about this. They are not gifted with higher IQ, but they have put in over a decade of hard work to reach where they are.

What is Deliberate Practice: It is set of those activities that have been found most effective in improving performance. 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.

For purpose of exam preparations, what would this mean ?

Over the years with current research, a number of conditions for optimal learning and improvement of performance have been uncovered (Bower & Hilgard, 1981; Gagne, 1970). Here are 7 things known as key factors in success using deliberate practice.

  1. The most cited condition is student's motivation, to exert extra effort to improve their performance. Do you have that motivation in you ? Are you doing this study because you want to achieve that dream of yours ? Do you want to do it for your pride ? Your parents ? You have to find one or more motivations for your current study, and make sure you are really dying to do anything it takes to achieve that goal. So you want to be a doctor ? Or you want to crack JEE ? Or SSC-CGL is your goal ? Want to be best in your class ? Pride of the school ? Think of ot, and get your motivation. Because there is no substitute of student's own motivation.

  2. The design of the study should take into account the pre-existing knowledge of the learners and build upon that, so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. Simply put, you need to know where you stand currently, what scores will you get at current levels, and where you have to reach to crack that exam. The gap has to be filled, chapter by chapter. One question at a time.

  3. The students should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. This is important for two reasons, you should know immediately where you stand because just after the exam or activity, you are in best midframe to receive feedback and improve. Secondly, you should get feedback on how to improve, what more to do. This can be done in classroom settings, learning with peers around, and where teacher is accessible for help. Does you coaching provide you this ?

  4. The students should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks. Importance of solving thousands of questions is immense. Research shows your mental ability to solve new, unseen questions depends on how many questions you have solved previously. It does not depend on how many books you have read on the subject or how many classes you have attended. Another extremely important thing is variety of questions you have solved and practiced on. Wider variety of sources will give you much better chance.

  5. Studies revealed student's active search for methods to improve performance and found that changes in methods could often be related to clear improvements. Improvements come from finding new methods. New ways to solve. Finding optimal solutions. And once again, clearly means students should seek help from teachers to get to know the most optimal solutions.

  6. Studies (Chase & Ericsson, 1981; VanLehn, 1991) have also shown that more successful students actively try out different methods and refine methods in response to errors. Don't get stuck, keep seeking for more.

  7. To assure effective learning, students ideally should be given explicit instructions about the best method and be supervised by a teacher to allow individualized diagnosis of errors, informative feedback, and remedial part training.

MyQuestionBox is designed to help students gain expertise through practice. Like it's said earlier also, practice over large set of questions, taken from diverse sources will help students get that extra edge in exams. Check available courses and start your practice.