A Gauge for Measuring Effective Practice

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If you distilled all the new science about talent development into two words of advice, they would be “practice better.”

That’s it. Practice. Better.

Forget everything else about your genes, your potential — it’s all just noise. The most basic truth is that if you practice better, you’ll develop your talent — and you won’t develop your talent unless you practice better. Period.

For most of us, that’s precisely where we bump into a common problem: how? Specifically, which practice method to choose? Do we focus on repeating a skill we’ve got, or do we work on new skills? What kinds of drills work best? What’s the best way to spend the limited time we’ve got?

When it comes to figuring out how to practice better, we often feel like we’re standing in the cereal aisle of the grocery store. There are lots of seemingly attractive choices. But how do we pick the ones that have the most nutrition, and avoid the ones that are empty calories?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’d like to use this blog as a test drive for a new gauge for comparing practice methods. I’m calling it the R.E.P.S. Gauge.

(Okay, acronyms are cheesy, I know. But they’ve been around for a long time because they work.)

R stands for Reaching/Repeating.

E stands for Engagment.

P stands for Purposefulness

S stands for Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback.

The idea behind the gauge is simple: you should practice methods that contain these key elements, and avoid methods that don’t. Below, you’ll find a description of each element along with a sample choice to illustrate how it works.

  • Element 1: Reaching and Repeating. Does the practice have you operating on the edge of your ability, reaching and repeating? How many reaches are you making each minute? Each hour?

Scenario: a math teacher trying to teach multiplication tables to 30 students.

• Teacher A selects a single student to write the tables on the board.

• Teacher B creates a “game show” format where a math question is posed verbally to the entire class, then calls on a single student to answer.

Result: Teacher B chose the better option because it creates 30 reaches in the same amount of time. In Classroom A, only one student had to truly stretch — everybody else could lean back and observe. In Classroom B, however, every single member of the class has to stretch (picture the wires of their brains, reaching) in case their name is called. Not a small difference.

  • Element 2: Engagement. Is the practice immersive? Does it command your attention? Does it use emotion to propel you toward a goal?

Scenario: a violin student trying to perfect a short, tough passage in a song.

• Student A plays the passage 20 times.

• Student B tries to play the passage perfectly — with zero mistakes — five times in a row. If they make any mistake, the count goes back to zero and they start over.

Result: Student B made the better choice, because the method is more engaging. Playing a passage 20 times in a row is boring, a chore where you’re simply counting the reps until you’re done. But playing 5 perfectly, where any mistake sends you back to zero, is intensively engaging. It’s a juicy little game.

  • Element 3: Purposefulness. Does the task directly connect to the skill you want to build?

Scenario: a basketball team keeps losing games because they’re missing late free-throws.

•  Team A practices free throws at the end of a practice, with each player shooting 50 free throws.

• Team B practices free throws during a scrimmage, so each player has to shoot them while exhausted, under pressure.

Result: Team B made the better choice, because their practice connects to the skill you want to build: the ability to make free throws under pressure, while exhausted. (No player ever gets to shoot 50 straight in a game.)

  • The fourth element: Strong, Direct, Immediate Feedback. In other words, the learner always knows how they’re doing — where they’re making mistakes, where they’re doing well — because the practice is telling them in real time. They don’t need anybody to explain that they need to do X or Y, because it’s clear as a bell.

Scenario: a high school student trying to improve her SAT score.

•  Student A spends a Saturday taking a mock version of the entire SAT test, receiving results back one week later.

• Student B spends a Saturday taking a mini-version of each section, self-grading and reviewing each test in detail as soon as it’s completed.

Result: Student B made the better choice, because the feedback is direct and immediate. Learning immediately where she went wrong (and where she went right) will tend to stick, while learning about it in a week will have little effect.

The idea of this gauge is simple: practices that contain all four of these core elements (R.E.P.S.) are the ones you want to choose, because those are the ones that will produce the most progress in the shortest amount of time. Audit your practices and get rid of the methods that have fewer R.E.P.S. and replace them with methods that have lots.

The other takeaway here is that small, strategic changes in practice can produce huge benefits in learning. Making a little tweak to the learning space — for instance, teaching multiplication through a little juicy game that keeps 30 people on their toes — can have big effects on learning velocity. Spending time strategizing your practice is one of the most effective investments you can make in developing talent.

But as I said at the start, this idea is still in the experimental phase. What other elements should we consider including? How do you achieve your best practices? What else should we add here?

As a sidenote, this will be my last blog entry for a little while, as I’m going to take the summer to work on a couple of book projects. I will be checking in periodically, of course, and will start up again in earnest when the school year starts in August. Thanks for reading, for all your insightful and helpful comments, and for making this project so fun and worthwhile.


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26 Responses to “A Gauge for Measuring Effective Practice”

  1. Arvind says:

    Nice post! I agree with a lot of what you say, but speaking from personal experience as a music student, sometimes you can’t expect direct feedback in each session. Each time I sing, I record my session but don’t necessarily notice a lot of improvement since my voice simply doesn’t have enough strength (and muscle memory) to execute the piece in question. But over a period of weeks to months or sometimes even years, the improvement has become noticeable. So I’d add to your post that in some disciplines (esp. music) you shouldn’t give up even if you don’t get immediate feedback that you’ve improved.

  2. Dan –

    I like the REPS Gauge idea, in its present form and as a springboard for thought on what makes better practice. It seems like it needs an element of duration, i.e. something showing over what period of time was the practice method tried. Example: Student B spending a Saturday taking a mini version of the SAT, with immediate self grading. To know whether this practice method is effective, I’d want to know how many practice sessions she spent doing that – was it 4 Saturdays out of 10, and the other 6 sessions were done like Student A – or were all 10 of her sessions done that way?

    There are lots ways to practice, and lots of ways to measure the effectiveness of the practice. It’s cool to think about.

    Great ideas you have. I’ll miss your posts this summer. Look forward to reading more in the fall.

    Best,
    Susan

  3. Dan Walsh says:

    “Spending time strategizing your practice is one of the most effective investments you can make in developing talent.”

    I whole-heartedly agree! I’ve recently started learning Judo and I find that my most effective classes are those in which I take 30 minutes or so before practice to figure out what I want to work on. I go to class with a specific goal and end up better for it.

  4. djcoyle says:

    Hey Arvind,
    Good point — and I like it also because it speaks to the importance of looking at the big picture here. Sometimes the progress feels slow. But when you pull back the camera, you can see how far you’ve come.

  5. swatlington says:

    Dan,

    I agree with the others; this is a great post! The REPS idea is brilliant man. I could not have come up with a better acronym myself, and yes acronyms DO work! I can definitely apply this to learning violin and to many other things. By the way, I hope that you have a great summer vacation and that you enjoy yourself while working on those book projects you speak of (that is kind of a paradoxical, but in your case, I’m sure the work can be enjoyable).

    Best wishes,

    Seth

  6. Aaron A says:

    I can readily agree that this approach works fantastically for academics. I was a student who got very uneven results by doing simple rote reviews for tests, just going over the notes again and again until something would stick. I got the idea of making self-administered quizzes from a Cal Newport book, and have been having much success with it. I simply make quizzes based on my class notes or use questions at the end of the chapter in my books. Whatever I get wrong, I go back and review, then retest a bit later. This process takes a little bit of time to set up, but highlights the areas I need to focus on with laser-like ability. It’s much better than just going through the motions of just rereading notes and book chapters. It’s all about shoring up your weaknesses bit by bit.

    I have to say, your book was like an epiphany to me when I first got a hold of it. Because of viewing school performance as a skill that I can develop consciously, I’ve become a much better student in all areas of life. Thank you so much, and I look forward to your next book!

  7. Theresa Maxwell says:

    Great article and very much needed. I do think there is one aspect that should be added and that is the ‘decision making’ aspect or teaching tactics and strategies. This too should be a taught and practiced in a deliberate and progressive fashion, similar to the learning of technical skills. The research on decision making and expert vs novice processes supports this. Teaching Games for Understanding (although aimed at physical activity) provides a framework for structuring learning to accommodate the thinking aspect. This framework complements much of what you have stated about practice, but adds the cognitive aspect in the forefront as a learning outcome. Having used this framework for teaching various age groups over an extended periods of time, I am thoroughly convinced that long term performance is greatly enhanced for all who have practiced using these concepts. Keep up the good work.

  8. djcoyle says:

    Great point. Thank you.

  9. aaron walsh says:

    Hi Dan,

    Huge fan of you work from New Zealand. We run a golf academy and are implementing much of your thoughts into practice. This article is so helpful in reducing the information on practice into clear concise principals. The question I do have is how do we ensure we are developing strong mental habits and thinking in the midst of skill development? In some of our kids we have fear and anxiety to battle with and as you know this affects motor skill immensely. We are now only recording and analyzing their swings during competition. No pressure on the practice range for many of them.

    Aaron

  10. djcoyle says:

    Hi Aaron, Good question. And a big one. Call it mental strength, or focus, or discipline — but it’s at the heart of performance, esp in a sport like yours. You’re essentially talking about emotional control, and so I’d suggest a couple things: 1) treat it like a muscle. Try to find creative ways to stretch each player so they get the opportunity to pre-experience these pressure situations over and over; 2) tell ‘em how it works. Explain to them how you’re building these emotional-control muscles, so they can really participate in the process. Good luck!

  11. Jukka Jalonen says:

    Hello Dan,

    I am a big fan of yours from Finland and I have got lots of great ideas from your articles. Practicing better is a very demanding and an attractive task, and you give us again good examples how to do it.

    I have coached hockey more than 20 years and I am always looking for new ideas for practicing better and more effectively. I totally agree with your REPS Gauge idea, but obviously they are not all easy to use in all sports.

    One of the best ways to practice in ball sports is competition. As a coach you can create a competition from almost any drill. Always count goals in games and/or drills and give winner(s) credit for what they have done. Doing this practice is much more gamelike and authentic – amd players love it!

    Other good way to practice better is using ‘limit and control’ in a drill. Control means that a player does the drill (for example four times) in a way which he/she can do for sure. Then he/she does the drill (for example 6 times) in a limit, where he/she can also make mistakes and can’t finish the drill properly. Player can decide himself/herself when he/she uses control or limit in a drill. Doing this there is also an element of confidence, not only technical or physical element. Using only control (which is very common way to do drills) players don’t improve enough. And using only limit, players can lose confidence, because they won’t succeed often enough, especially in the beginning. Hopefully you understood my way to explain my thoughts in foreign language…

    Have a nice summertime!

    Jukka

  12. Ramin says:

    I love this post. There is so much usable information inside. I’m currently designing coursework that aims at improving cognitive function and memory skills, and this is of big help.
    Would be really great to have a systematic way of developing this kind of practice. Something that goes into even more detail than this blog post.
    Maybe using a kind of checklist, or more evolved analysis device, so that one is in a better position to evaluate: how can I improve this practice?

    The only additional suggestion that I could come up with to REPS is awareness of one’s own physical state. I think this is especially true for practicing mental skills. Athletes tend to have good breathing and posture – but people who try to learn something or try to focus intensely on a mental task often have a tendency to breathe shallowly, hold in their breath temporarily and be in a hunched over position. This affects them not just physically, but also mentally. So being both deeply engaged in the subject matter, but at the same time being aware of breathing, posture; your own physiology. In many fields this is already part of the training – for example, violinists spend a lot of time learning about how to position the violin and their body, athletes learn about it, but what about IT-guys, mathematicians, knowledge workers, …?

  13. Mike Bellafiore says:

    Dan,

    Enjoy the summer! Great post as always above. Thxs for helping all of us learn how to get better.

    Mike

  14. Dale says:

    The Hacker News discussion of this post is at:
    http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2602384

  15. Tim (from Australia) says:

    Thanks Dan

    I love it. It is simple and effective.

    Two things I would suggest to improve.

    Firstly, where you are stuck at a level, or there is a roadblock, (which will continually happen), you need to be reminded to source creative ways to continue to improve (you referred to it in your last post) eg cross train, different speeds. I think it would be useful to add this as a second “S” (eg Source creative ways to improve) to ensure it is keep it in mind.

    Secondly, it would be useful to have a “measure” for REPS(S). Ultimately the measure is how much you improve, however I think a “process” measure would be helpful.

    As an example, in the book “Good to Great”, there is a story about a track team who “run the best at the end” (that is their motto). They use a process measure of “the number of people they pass at the end of the race” ie if in the last lap you pass two people, then that two is the metric. Ultimately, by following this process, they have won a large number of races.

    A potential measure for REPS(S) could be the number of times you reached and failed in one session. This measure would ensure you were continuing to reach. I am sure there are better ones.

    I will miss your updates; they have been both interesting and insightful.

    Enjoy the break and I look forward to your new books.

    Thanks

    Tim

    PS Ramin, I like your comments on non athletic / musical improvement. I am interested to hear any other techniques you or others have to develop mental skills (ie no athletic or musical skills).

  16. KC says:

    Jukka,

    There’s a very successful American Football coach (Pete Carroll) whose motto is “Always Compete” and I believe he runs his practices the same way you do. His players were highly motivated and didn’t seem to have a lot of trouble in “pressure” situations, because competition was part of practice.

    KC

  17. Scott says:

    Thank you Daniel. This is one of your best posts. Keep up your great work and thanks again for sharing.
    Scott

  18. Cody says:

    what about PREF instead of REPs, it kinda seems like short for professional and might be easier to remember. (Purposeful reach engage feedback) hmm i guess that dosent stress the feedback, dunno. Just a thought cuz is was hard to remember the S in reps. Love the blog, cant wait for the book!

    Cody

  19. Peter says:

    Jukka – I love the control and limit idea. Nice! And to KC and everyone else, I completely agree with the notion of “always compete”. As our good friend from USA Volleyball, John Kessel, is fond of saying, “The Game Teaches the Game”. In the context of practice and motor learning, this really addresses several things:

    1. Being able to experience and solve the problems associated with variability is critical. Isolated drills are far less effective than we often believe them to be because they do not include the random types of experiences we will encounter in competition.

    2. Competing, or practicing when something at stake (games, scrimmages, etc.) also provides the opportunity to work on other aspects of performance. Motor skills (the physical act of “doing things”) are only one facet of performance. “Mental skills” and “perceptual skills” are two other major components of performance that, as Dan suggests, can be trained “just like a muscle”.

    If I’m being really picky, I’d add one caveat regarding the use or value of immediate feedback. The notion of this is correct – strong, direct, immediate (I’ll add “specific”) feedback is a powerful way to guide improvements in performance. However, the literature on this is clear. Once the objective of the performance is clearly understood, immediate feedback is NOT always best for sustained performance (e.g. long-term learning). And, to be perfectly clear, by “immediate” I’m really referring to “instantaneous” – feedback is provided the INSTANT the performance is complete. Rather, providing summaries of feedback or pauses before delivering feedback are more effective than providing immediate feedback if the goal is to “learn”.

    Using one of your examples, if, when basketball players are shooting free throws, it is NOT recommended to provide feedback after each and every attempt. Rather, it is best to provide a summary of feedback based on 2-5 attempts. In this way (and assuming the athlete is truly engaged in the process of becoming better), the shooter has time to reflect on previous performances and the coach can focus on the more common “faults” of the performance. Both have an ability to use the time between attempts without feedback to solve the problem at hand – “why was that attempt not successful?”.

  20. John says:

    Daniel,

    This is my first time commenting here. I have read you book and found it very interesting. As a coach I am always searching for ideas on ways to help my players reach their goals. So I have found your book and webiste as a great resource.
    My main reason for commenting is I just read an article from ESPN the Magazine about hammer throwing written by Brendan I. Koerner on June 27th. I haven’t really sat down and given it any thought yet but there are some ideas I’m sure you could use for this blog. The one that came right to my mind as I read the article was about how the 2 Soivet hammer throwers used their “rivalry” to break the hammer throw record over and over again in the late 70′s and early 80′s. You may have already written about this. But thought at the very least you might find the article interesting.

    Thanks for the great read.

  21. Noel says:

    The message is spreading. Thanks.

  22. liz garnett says:

    On the matter of instantaneous or realtime feedback – this is something that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identifies as one of the key elements in getting into a flow state (along with balance of challenge to skill level, clear task definition, personal control and instrinsic rewards). I’ve always read this as meaning feedback inherent to the activity – how the music sounds, if you get the ball in the goal, etc – rather than a teacher’s feedback, which as Peter says, may be more useful when there’s space to reflect.

    Come to think of it, I have been linking myelination and flow as largely the same process since reading The Talent Code, but I suspect that’s my assumption rather than anything either author has actually said. Would be interested if you’d care to comment on this at some point!

  23. Mel says:

    Welcome Back!

  24. djcoyle says:

    Thanks! Good to be here.

  25. Laura Claycomb says:

    Thank you so much for your great book and this blog! I wanted to reply to Arvind, about singing… With singing, you CAN get direct and automatic feedback by training your ears to LISTEN for your mistakes and your body to FEEL the mistakes. This is the true “talent” of a singer – to be able to hear the minute differences between good and bad singing. You have to go SLOWLY and concentrate on the connection to your breathing and support. There are so many things that need to go on in your body to create good singing, but you have to tackle them one at a time. You CAN make a list of them and sing small, short passages (or just small exercises) while concentrating on making one thing on that list happen at a time – until you have mastered that one thing. Then you can go back and sing the SAME exercise, concentrating on the SECOND skill on your list, building on Skill #1, etc… You render subconscious one thing at a time. It’s painstaking and slow, but It will get you results.

  26. [...] Listening to Dan made me think of ”Lords of Dogtown.” Dan asked the audience “Why do kids at play learn the fastest?” Take skateboarders, Dan’s example, who are typically seen as a teen slackers. In actually they are quite the opposite. Do you know how many times you have to try the trick in order to master it? This is what high performance is all about—practice. [...]

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