Don't just learn, overlearn

Jonathan Beale, Researcher-in-Residence, CIRL

How much and what kind of practice is required to gain expertise of a skill or in a specific area of a discipline? The concept of ‘expertise’ is complex and multifaceted; here, I don’t mean it in the broad sense of becoming an expert of an entire field, such as a ‘political expert’, an ‘expert in intellectual history’, or an ‘expert on Shakespeare’. I mean it in the more specific sense of reaching expertise over a particular task or skill, where ‘expertise’ denotes the stage where one has gained such a high level of mastery that engaging in that skill or completing that task is effortless. Experts, it is sometimes said, make a skill ‘look easy’. This is because they have mastered the skill to the point where they can do it effortlessly.

Overlearning

To gain expertise, in this sense, we often need to ‘overlearn’. This use of ‘overlearning’ is not pejorative. The term can be used pejoratively: we might say that someone has ‘overlearned’ by wasting time going over things of which they already possess a high level of knowledge and understanding in the same ways they previously studied them, rather than learning something new or trying to understand what they already know in new ways. But ‘overlearning’ also has a positive sense, denoting an important step in the process towards gaining expertise of a skill.

On several occasions in his influential ‘Principles of Instruction’, Barak Rosenshine uses the term ‘overlearning’ (Rosenshine, pp. 13 & 18).[1] To overlearn is to learn or practise something beyond the point of ‘initial mastery’, such that recalling your existing knowledge of a particular area is ‘automatic’ and your skills are fluent (Rosenshine, p. 13). By ‘automatic’, Rosenshine refers to the stage in the learning process where learning and practice has been undertaken such that recall is effortless. Rosenshine argues that overlearning is required for any skill to become automatic (Rosenshine, p. 18).

Automaticity

Evidence from cognitive science suggests that when we reach the point of ‘automaticity’, engaging in the task or skill that has become automatic takes up less of our working memory – the area where we process information. ‘When material is overlearned’, Rosenshine writes, ‘it can be recalled automatically and doesn’t take up any space in working memory’ (Rosenshine, p. 18).

Learning to the point where a skill becomes automatic enables a learner to recall information from long-term memory effortlessly, without using much working memory. Our working memory is small. By using less of it to recall prior learning, we are in a better position to learn new things and engage in problem-solving in the area where we have made recalling knowledge automatic and our skills fluent.

Thousands of hours of practice

How much overlearning is required to reach automaticity? Rosenshine doesn’t say; he just writes that the ‘development of expertise requires thousands of hours of practice’ (Rosenshine, p. 13). How many thousands? Again, Rosenshine doesn’t say – he just emphasises that,

The best way to become an expert is through practice – thousands of hours of practice. The more the practice, the better the performance. (Rosenshine, p. 20)

A specific amount is given by Malcolm Gladwell: his ‘10,000-hour rule’ holds that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are required to reach top-level performance ability.[2] Whatever the amount, the consensus is that to master a skill, extensive practice is required, and ‘the best way’, as Rosenshine puts it, is through thousands of hours.

Deliberate practice

Not just any kind of practice will yield expertise. Bad practice can be counterproductive, causing you to become worse at a skill; by practising bad habits, you get better at doing something badly. Effective practice needs to be of a particular kind: ‘deliberate’.

‘Deliberate practice’ is a systematic method of effortful, highly focused, goal-oriented practice which aims at improving performance.[3] It is sometimes described as ‘intentional engagement in skill-based learning’.[4]

The concept was coined and developed in the 1970s by K. Anders Ericsson, Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and a renowned expert on the psychology of expertise and performance. In a 2007 article in Harvard Business Review on deliberate practice and expertise, Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula and Edward T. Cokely write that:

It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in “deliberate” practice – practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself.[5]

In a BBC article on deliberate practice published last year, William Park reports that Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule is based upon Ericsson’s notion of deliberate practice and the research in one of Ericsson’s first papers on deliberate practice suggests that roughly 10 years is required to reach the level of an elite performer. That suggestion is based on the estimate that ten years of practice equates to around 10,000 hours, if the learner undertakes the kind of practice routine that aims towards elite performance – e.g., the kind undertaken by professional athletes.[6]

Deliberate practice involves:

  • Purpose: aim to improve your performance beyond its current level.
  • Specificity: break down the task to be achieved or the skill to be gained into smaller tasks or practices, each of which constitutes a step along the path towards expertise.
  • Identification: identify areas where specific improvements and practice are needed.
  • Focus: concentrate and avoid distractions; become fully absorbed in the task or skill you are aiming to master.
  • Systematization: focus on the areas where improvement is needed as part of a procedure towards expertise.
  • Goals: make your practice goal-oriented, focusing on achieving incremental goals situated just outside your comfort zone, ultimately aimed at improving performance.
  • Repetition: regularly rehearse areas in need of improvement until mastery and a specific goal is achieved, before moving to the next goal.
  • Resilience: as a consequence of trying to do things you cannot yet do, deliberate practice will involve regular failure and so will require bouncing back to persevere towards expertise.[7]
  • Feedback: you need regular feedback, ideally from an expert, on where improvement is needed and how improvement should be made.
  • Self-reflection: you should be regularly self-assessing your own performance and reflecting on areas where improvement is needed.
  • Effort: deliberate practice involves sustained effort, because you are outside your comfort zone; if it feels easy, little effort is required.
  • Time: expertise requires thousands of hours of deliberate practice.
  • Coaching: as Ericsson, Prietula and Cokely write in the quote above, expertise as a result of deliberate practice requires ‘a well-informed coach’, to ‘guide you through deliberate practice’ and ‘help you learn how to coach yourself’.

To contrast deliberate with non-deliberate practice, the latter might involve:

  • mindlessly repeating tasks (rather than involving focused attention);
  • a feeling of ease, due to lack of effort (which could imply that automaticity has already been attained);
  • staying within your comfort zone (rather than stretching yourself);
  • a lack of specific goals or purposes;
  • practising what is already known or understood well, rather than areas in need of improvement.[8]

The pomodoro technique

What is a good method for deliberate practice? The ‘pomodoro technique’ is one method that can be used effectively for ‘deliberate practising’ some tasks and skills. This is a time management technique where a task is broken down into shorter tasks spaced over timed intervals, undertaken for specific blocks of time with short breaks in-between.

Each block is called a ‘pomodoro’, the Italian word for ‘tomato’, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer, because such a timer was said to have been used by the creator of the technique in its development – entrepreneur, developer and author Francesco Cirillo.[9] Cirillo developed the technique while he was a university student looking for ways to work more productively. The technique is analogous to approaching a task via short sprints with breaks, rather than a long-distance run.

The pomodoro technique involves the following stages:

  1. Identify a pomodoro: identify a specific task to be completed (a ‘task’ could be practising a skill). For example, ‘proof-read the article I need to submit on Monday’, or ‘practise the top line melody to “On Green Dolphin Street” to a metronome, starting at 50% of the tempo I need to perform it live’.
  2. Complete the pomodoro: set a timer for 25 minutes, and engage in the task or practise the skill for that period, without distractions.
  3. Record your progress: after 25 minutes, stop working. Record your progress. Note areas in need of improvement.
  4. Take a break: take a 5-minute break, where you take your mind off your work (grab a coffee, have a bite to eat, stretch, go for a walk, or just relax).
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 twice, followed by steps 2-3 once: the technique involves four blocks of 25-minute pomodoros followed by 5-minute breaks, and on the fourth time through, taking a longer break; so:
  6. Take a longer break: after the fourth pomodoro, take a longer break, of 15-30 minutes. As with the shorter breaks, use this time to take your mind off your work.

The above process can be repeated for further rounds.[10]

A screenshot of a cell phone

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Image courtesy of ElvinDantes.com

Independent learning

The pomodoro technique can be undertaken without any teaching or assistance from others. This is important for reaching expertise as a result of deliberate practice and the level of expertise with which Rosenshine is concerned. (On the importance of independent learning skills, see a previous blog post.)

As we saw in the quote above from Ericsson, Prietula and Cokely, expertise as a result of deliberate practice requires ‘a well-informed coach’ to ‘guide you through deliberate practice’ and ‘help you learn how to coach yourself’. You learn how to coach yourself so you can learn and improve independently, which has the benefit that you can continue to make progress in the absence of your coach.

Rosenshine argues that independent practice is required for overlearning and automaticity, and, as teachers, we should aim to reach this stage of practice with our students. ‘Students need’, Rosenshine writes, ‘extensive, successful, independent practice in order for skills and knowledge to become automatic’ (Rosenshine, p. 18). At this stage, a learner no longer requires guidance, instruction or assistance to complete the tasks or practise the skill in question, or to recall prior learning in that area. 

If it takes thousands of hours to reach expertise over a task or skill, teachers should not be expected to get their students to achieve expertise. The aim should be to help students along the path towards it. According to Rosenshine, one of a teacher’s roles is to help students reach the stage where they can learn and practise independently. This is part of the learning process towards expertise. Perhaps, then, one of our aims, as educators, should be to help students reach the stage where they have gained mastery over particular tasks and skills and can engage in them independently, and understand what they need to do to reach expertise.

[1] Rosenshine’s ‘Principles of Instruction’ was originally published in 2010 by the International Academy of Education; it was republished in 2012 as ‘Principles of Instruction: Research-based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know’, in American Educator. All Rosenshine page references are to the latter.

[2] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (London: Penguin, 2008).

[3] See Duncan R. D. Mascarenhas and Nickolas C. Smith, ‘Developing the performance brain: decision making under pressure’ (Performance Psychology 2011, pp. 245-67): deliberate practice, they write, involves effort and it aims towards improvement of performance (rather than personal enjoyment).

[4] See ‘deliberate practice’ in Dieter Hackfort, Robert J. Schinke and Bernd Strauss (eds.), Dictionary of Sport Psychology (London: Academic Press, 2019).

[5] K. Anders Ericsson, Michael J. Prietula and Edward T. Cokely, ‘The Making of an Expert’Harvard Business Review, 2007.

[6] William Park, ‘How to master new skills with “deliberate practice”’, BBC Worklife, 2019.

[7] On Gladwell’s theory, ‘deliberate practice’ and the importance of resilience in the 10,000-hour rule, see Gordon Stobart, The Expert Learner: Challenging the Myth of Ability (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2014), pp. 3-4.

[8] For other online articles on deliberate practice, see ‘What is Deliberate Practice?’Farnam Street, 2012; ‘Deliberate Practice for Kids’, by the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center; the posts on deliberate practice by Deans for Impact‘Deliberate Practice in Education’Evidence-based Teaching, 2019 and James Clear’s article ‘Deliberate Practice: What It Is and How to Use It’. For critical responses to the theory of deliberate practice, see Shana Lebowitz, ‘A top psychologist says there’s only one way to become the best in your field. Not everyone agrees.’Business Insider, 2019; Brooke N. Macnamara and Megha Maitra, ‘The role of deliberate practice in expert performance’Royal Society Open Science, 2019; and Zach Hambrick and Frederick L. Oswald, ‘Deliberate practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert?’Intelligence 45(1), May 2013.

[9] See Cirillo’s The Pomodoro Technique: The Life-Changing Time-Management System(Penguin, 2018).

[10] The process described is roughly what is referred to as the ‘core process’ of the pomodoro technique. There are six different stages to becoming a ‘certified master’ of the pomodoro technique; see here for an overview from Francesco Cirillo’s website on those six stages in contrast to the core process.

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