Using practice to become (more) competent

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … competence
  • Knowing is … performing
  • Learner is … an actor (individual)
  • Learning is … improving (a competence)
  • Teaching is … coaching


Ancient, with significant developments emerging over the past half-century


Most discourses on Practice are concerned with how to structure rehearsal in ways that enhance competence and/or comprehension – that is, the development of Skills:
  • Skill – a developed ability – that is, one associated with Practice. Within education, some commonly mentioned types of Skill include:
    • Basic Skills – most commonly, the “3 Rs,” reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic – that is, operational fluency with reading, writing, and arithmetic
    • Communication Skills – learned abilities to use language proficiently – which, in most situations, minimally entails appropriate vocabulary, adequate grammar, inclination to listen, and capacity to read with comprehension
    • Motor Skills – mastery of control and accuracy in deliberate bodily movements
    • Social Skills – learned abilities to interact with fluid competence within social settings

While somewhat problematical, tasks associated with Practice are often distinguished from those associated with learning:

  • Learning Task – an activity intended to introduce learners to new information or a new skill
  • Practice Task – an activity involving rehearsal intended to render information more routine or a skill more automatic
Advice varies according to the level and type of Practice necessary for desired levels of Skill (e.g., functional or expert). Possibilities range from unreflective repetition that’s aimed at automatic action to highly structured and meticulously analyzed exercise that’s intended to support high-level performance.Regarding prominent subdiscourses, below we point to some types of practice and some effects of practice.
Types of Practice:
  • Blocked Practice is a general notion that can be applied to a focused on thorough study/practice of a single topic/skill. It is often contrasted with Interleaving Learning.
  • Cross-Training – a type of Practice that involves engaging in a deliberately selected diversity of activities with the intention of deriving benefits than none of the activities afford individually. In the context of personal athletic performance, Cross-Training typically involves a range of physical activities designed to address skill level, fitness, and flexibility all at once. In the context of an organizational functioning, Cross-Training across tasks and roles might be aimed at organizational robustness and adaptability. Subtypes of Cross-Training include:
    • Cross-Education – a type of Cross-Training that is involves improving the skill of one part or zone of one’s physical body through Practice of another part
  • Deliberate Practice (K. Anders Ericsson) is associated with Expert–Novice research and is concerned with the sort of practice that enables extraordinary performance. Typically articulated in contrast to mindless repetition, Deliberate Practice is cognitively demanding. It is aimed not just at fluidity, but an awareness of the nuances that enable and amplify a competence. Key aspects of Deliberate Practice include well-defined goals with well-sequenced sub-goals; regular, high-quality feedback from an expert teacher/coach; frequent and extensive engagement over a long term.
  • Desirable Difficulty (Robert A. Bjork, 1990s) points to a sort of practice that is both challenging and engaging. Advocates assert that Desirable Difficulty is motivational, enhances retention, deepens understanding, and enables transfer.
  • Distributed Practice (Distributed LearningSpaced Practice)  refers to a structured mode of study that involves engaging with manageable amounts of content, spread out over time (contrast: Massed Practice; not to be confused with the Distributed Learning of Technology-Mediated Individual Learning). It is associated with:
    • Lag Effect (Arthur Melton, 1960s) – an improvement in ability to recall information that can happen when the lag – i.e., the time between repeated exposures to that information – in increased during a period of study
    • Principle of Distributed Repetitions – the suggestions that, to be most effective, Practice should be spaced out over time and blocks of practice should be separated by other activities
    • Repetitive Learning (Drill) – the systematic repetition of identical or highly similar motions or practice exercises, aimed at mastery of a skill or procedure
  • Distributed-Practice Effect (Spacing Effect) – the phenomenon associated with Distributed Practice – namely, that short and spaced study sessions lead to better mastery than long and continuous ones. Several theories have been proposed to account for the Distributed-Practice Effect, including:
    • Consolidation Theory – the suggestion that one creates additional representations of an item when it is encountered again (and so spaced practice is effective because it presents multiple encounters)
    • Deficient Processing Theory (D.L. Hintzman, 1970s) – the suggestion that one pays more attention to spaced repetitions of an item because the item is not continuously active in memory (and so spaced practice reduces the likelihood one will become inured to – and forgetful of – an item)
    • Encoding Variability Theory (Charles Bird, 1970s) – the suggestion that spaced practice will likely mean that an item will be associated with a wider variety of stored, and so it will have more and/or stronger retrieval routes
    • Retrieval Effort Hypothesis (M.A. Pyc, K.A. Rawson) – the suggestion that spacing of practice compels more effortful retrieval, which leads to deeper processing of the item
    • Semantic Priming (B.H. Challis, 1990s) – the suggestion that one is always more primed for a subsequent presentation (compared to a prior presentation), which results in less processing. However, with spacing, more processing becomes necessary, strengthening the retrieval route for that item.
    • Study-Phase Retrieval Theory (R.L. Greene, 1980s) – the suggestion that one retrieves earlier recollections of an item with they encounter it again (and so spaced practice strengthens the retrieval route for that item)
  • Effortful Practice (Effortful Processing) is a mode of rehearsal in which there is both a genuine risk of failure (which keeps things from being boring) and a likelihood of success (which helps to minimize frustration). Properly structured, the failures associated with Effortful Practice are informative, not discouraging. Effortful Practice is often included as an aspect of Deliberate Practice.
  • Guided Practice – various meanings, but most often understood as that interactive portion of a formal lesson that follows teacher-led introduction of new content and that precedes independent student work or Homework
  • Homework – practice outside of a formal learning setting (Homework is a highly contested topic, owing in large part to uncritical or shallow understandings of practice. As indicated in other entries on this page, it is clear that some types of that practice make worlds of difference. Unfortunately, it is difficult to ensure that homework, which is typically unsupervised, will afford such practice – thus potentially creating situations in which homework amplifies difference by providing the “already-competent” with practice appropriate to them and the “emerging-competent” with the sort of practice that enables neither deeper insight nor greater skill. A vicious circle can be set up as educators who benefitted from homework that was well-fitted to their competencies are compelled to make decisions on homework for others who are in very different circumstances.)
  • Interleaving Learning refers to a structured shifting among multiple topics or skills, typically across complementary disciplines. It is often contrasted with Blocked Practice.
  • J Curve (J-Shaped Distribution) – a commonly observed pattern of skill improvement when training for a difficult task, starting with a modest initial dip in performance as one grapples with unfamiliar complexities of the activity (slight downslope), followed by modest-but-steady improvement (slight upslope), followed by rapid progress to mastery (steep rise)
  • Massed Practice (Cramming) is the presentation and repetition of what is to be learned within a brief span of time. (contrast: Distributed Practice)
  • Mastery Learning is an instructional strategy built on the premise that each student must demonstrate a high level of competence and confidence with prerequisite topics before moving to more advanced topics.
  • Overlearning (Hermann Ebbinghaus, 1890s) was originally defined as the number of repetitions needed in order to recall memorized material with 100% accuracy. It is currently more loosely defined in terms of practicing after the point of desired or required proficiency.
  • Productive Failure (Manu Kapur, 2000s) is a precursor of the notion of Productive Struggle that focuses on complex, technology-dense learning situations while formalizing four necessary and interdependent aspects of the learning design: (1) invoking prior knowledge, (2) highlighting key features of new concepts, (3) exploration of those features, and (4) integrating those features into the new concept.
  • Productive Struggle (2010s) is, effectively, a mash-up of notions of Effortful Practice, Mindset, and Grit. It refers to a problem-based mode of Practice through which it is hoped the learner will develop both perseverance and insight while grappling with unfamiliar subject matter.
  • Rote Learning refers to approaches that emphasize repetition and memorization, with the goal of quick and accurate recall. It is typically encountered in contexts and disciplines where uncritical mastery of a mechanical skill or a block of information is useful.
  • Repetition Principle – One of the more problematic discourses on matters of both Practice and Rote Learning, the Repetition Principle began as the realization that repeating an assertion a sufficient number of times will convince some of its voracity. That truism of propagandists and advertisers devolved into a principle of teaching – namely, that a specific number of repetitions with lead to robust learning. That number varies from context to context. Some examples include seven for marketers to convince consumers of a product’s worthiness, 17 for a new word to enter long-term memory, and 25 physical reps to train a muscle to a desired motion. The science behind all such notions is dubious.
  • Speed Learning encompasses a range of methods intended to increase memory (usually defined in terms of extent and precision of recall) without overly compromising understanding. While sometimes associated with Rote Learning, it typically involves active questioning and higher-order thinking skills.
  • 10,000-Hours Rule refers to a notion that rose to prominence in the early 2010s. It concerns the extent of focused practice necessary to achieve world-class performances. While rooted in research into experts across multiple realms, the notion is most often invoked as just a reference just to quantity – as opposed to quality – of practice. While hinting at an important truth with regard to practice, it is readily debunked if taken literally.
  • Thinking Routine – a brief and regularly used strategy integrated into classroom activity that is intended to support specific contents, skills, and/or habits
  • Training is a term typically applied to the teaching and learning of skills. When used narrowly and deprecatingly, Training tends to be associated with repetitive practice, Rote Learning, and limited reflection.
  • Work–Rest Cycle is a routinized pattern of skilled performance and intermittent breaks, generally regarded to significantly improve accuracy, interest, and productivity
Effects of Practice:
  • Automaticity (Routinization) owing to extensive Practice, action sequences that are so well learned that no conscious control is needed for expert execution. (Note: Automaticity is often, but not always, conflated with Habit. See below.) Automatized action sequences are often considered in two categories:
    • Automatic Performance (Routinized Behavior) – behaviors that have been rehearsed sufficiently to be performed without thinking about them
    • Automatic Thoughts (Routinized Thoughts) – thoughts that have been rehearsed so often that they are habitually repeated
    • Educated Intuition – perception, impression, or insight that is rooted in experience but that arrives suddenly as a strong conviction (without conscious awareness of its origins)
  • Cognitive Entrenchment (Eric Dane, 2010s) is, effectively, the opposite of the 10,000-Hours Rule (see below), pointing to the manner in which deep, Practice-based, domain-specific expertise can sometimes cripple the expert’s ability to adapt to new circumstances or solve unfamiliar problems.
  • Exponential Learning (various authors, and quite recent) is a notion invoked in multiple ways, but that always relies on the visual metaphor of a Learning Curve in the shape shown below. Variations include (1) the suggestion that triggering a desire to learn about a given subject will result in such accelerated learning; (2) a program in which course assignments are structured in a way that allows learners to draw on and elaborate students’ work in previous iterations of that course; (3) a shift in strategy to assess of learning, away from looking for increases in scores and toward looking for amplified impacts; and (4) a characterization of the relationship between the drawn-out, flattish process of learning the basics that, once mastered, enables rapid, steepish learning.
  • Forgetting Curve (Ebbinghaus’s Curve of Retention) (Hermann Ebbinghaus, 1890s) is visual representation that is purported to show how a memory weakens over time when it is not practiced or rehearsed. That weakening is typically characterized as an exponential decay (and often described in terms of half-life – i.e., the time required to reduce to half of the current strength).
  • Generation Effect (David Payne, James Neely, Daniel Burns; 1980s) – the well-documented realization that struggling to produce one’s one answer, even if incorrect, enhances understanding and subsequent learning. Often associated with Desirable Difficulty (see above).
  • Habit – those patterns of thinking and acting that are routinely and (most often) uncritically engaged. Associated discourses include:
    • Habit Theory (Habit Psychology) (William James, 1910s) – an umbrella category that collects those discourses concerned with the formation, perpetuation, and interruption of habits – that is,  Importantly, the domain recognizes that the vast majority of habits are healthy or benign, as habits are necessary to offload conscious thought (and thus enable effective functioning in the world).
    • Habit Formation Theory – perspectives that focus on the creation, maintenance, and/or improvement of habits. A broad range of frames are brought to bear in Habit Formation Theory, and they vary according around such matters as one’s conscious choice and one’s deliberate control of habits.
    • Habit Reversal Training – perspectives that focus on interrupting, replacing, and/or extinguishing undesired habits. Most methods are based in Behaviorisms and or Psychotherapy.
    • Mediational Learning (Edward Lyndon, 1990s) – a strategy focused on changing already-established habits or interpretations. The “mediational” in the title refers to the necessity of conscious awareness in such situations, as habits tend to be resilient. The theory offers direct advice on focus and dealing with emergent tensions in ways that support change. Three levels/types of skill mediation have been identified in the education literature:
      • Old Way New Way (Edward Lyndon, 1990s) – a Mediational Learning strategy that is focused on altering and/or unlearning everyday habits of acting and thinking
      • Skill Mediation (Edward Lyndon, 1990s) – a Mediational Learning strategy that is focused on altering complex skills that have become habitual (and therefore resistant to modification), such as those associated with sport, study, or work
      • Conceptual Mediation (Chris Dawson, Edward Lydon, 1990s) – a Mediational Learning strategy that is focused on affecting one’s default explanations and theories of various phenomena. In particular, Conceptual Mediation has been focused on enabling learners to discriminate between commonsense perspectives and scientific concepts, aimed at supporting one’s embrace of the latter.
    • Subcortical Learning – any learning, especially Habits, associated with areas of the brain below the cortex. (Note: The cortex is where higher-level functions take place.)
    • Unlearning – the deliberate process of replacing obsolete and/or inappropriate habits or skills with others that are more fitted to current circumstances
  • Learning Curve Theory (Acquisition Curve) (Hermann Ebbinghaus, 1880s) is based on a graphical interpretation of the relationship between practice (e.g., experience, rehearsal, etc.) and the extent of learning (a.k.a., quality of performance, level of expertise, achievement, etc.). As illustrated below, a range of trajectories is posited, the most common of which involves rapid learning at the start and settling into a plateau when a satisfactory level of mastery is attained. A frequently encountered variation involves a slower beginning, as the learner develops an awareness of what is to be learned. Contemporary versions, associated with more complex learning, tend to incorporate multiple plateaus (and occasional dips).

    Associated discourses include:

    • Continuity Theory – the assumption that sophisticated learning arises in linear, step-by-step processes. The pervasiveness of this belief is evident in the Learning Curve.
    • Discontinuity Theory (Karl Spencer Lashley, 1930s) – a perspective on learning that emphasizes the role of sudden insight, which is interpreted as abrupt perceptual reorganization – in effect, challenging some foundations assumptions of the Learning Curve
  • Learning Loss (Summer Learning Loss; Summer Slide) ­– a decline or regression in academic performance associated with lengthy breaks in focused practice, such as might occur during summer vacation. Learning Loss is not a universal phenomenon – but, when and where it happens, extents vary according to subject area, grade level, and socioeconomic status.
  • Learning Plateau – a descriptor emerging from the images associated with Learning Curve Theory (see above) that refers to moments of little no or perceptible learning
  • Multitasking – engaging in multiple attention-demanding activities at the same time, requiring rapid switching of conscious focus – and, somewhat ironically, potentially reducing efficiency while increasing the likelihood of errors. However, such issues can be mitigated with appropriate Practice, which should reduce demands of consciousness across each of the activities.
  • Warm-Up Effect – inaccurate performance of already-learned competencies at the start of a session, followed by a rapid shift to greater proficiency


Practice discourses are entangled with discourses on ability, development, and personality. This breadth of influence is especially evident in disparate attitudes toward talent (e.g., as principally innate and thus honed through practice vs. principally learned and thus established though practice), motivation (e.g., driven through external rewards and punishments vs. the intrinsic worth of the engagement), and failure (e.g., as something to be avoided vs. an inevitable and necessary element of learning). (See Medical Model of (Dis)Ability, Learning Styles Theories, Cognitive Styles Theories, Motivation Theories, Mindset, Identity Discourses, Developmental Discourses.)

Authors and/or Prominent Influences


Status as a Theory of Learning

Some Practice discourses are directly informed by cutting edge insights into human learning. However, to our knowledge, few if any contribute to those insights.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Discourses on Practice are centrally concerned with strategies to consolidate and/or amplify learning, rendering them perspectives on teaching in our analysis.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Most activities that are identified as “practice” in the context of education are informed by little more than the irrefutable realization that repeating something generally improves performance. Consequently, as a category, Practice discourses cannot be described as scientific. However, some subdiscourses (e.g., Deliberate Practice) do meet our criteria.


  • Automatic Performance (Routinized Behavior)
  • Automatic Thoughts (Routinized Thoughts)
  • Automaticity (Routinization)
  • Basic Skills
  • Blocked Practice
  • Cognitive Entrenchment
  • Communication Skills
  • Conceptual Mediation
  • Consolidation Theory
  • Continuity Theory
  • Deficient Processing Theory
  • Deliberate Practice
  • Desirable Difficulty
  • Discontinuity Theory (Discontinuity Hypothesis)
  • Distributed Practice (Distributed Learning; Spaced Practice)
  • Distributed-Practice Effect (Spacing Effect)
  • Educated Intuition
  • Effortful Practice (Effortful Processing)
  • Encoding Variability Theory
  • Exponential Learning
  • Forgetting Curve (Ebbinghaus’s Curve of Retention)
  • Generation Effect
  • Guided Practice
  • Habit
  • Habit Formation Theory
  • Habit Reversal Training
  • Habit Theory (Habit Psychology)
  • Homework
  • Interleaving Learning
  • J Curve (J-Shaped Distribution)
  • Lag Effect
  • Learning Curve Theory (Acquisition Curve)
  • Learning Loss (Summer Learning Loss; Summer Slide)
  • Learning Plateau
  • Learning Task
  • Massed Practice (Cramming)
  • Mastery Learning
  • Mediational Learning
  • Motor Skills
  • Multitasking
  • Old Way New Way
  • Overlearning
  • Practice Task
  • Principle of Distributed Repetitions
  • Productive Failure
  • Productive Struggle
  • Repetition Principle
  • Repetitive Learning (Drill)
  • Retrieval Effort Hypothesis
  • Rote Learning
  • Semantic Priming
  • Skill
  • Skill Mediation
  • Social Skills
  • Speed Learning
  • Study-Phase Retrieval Theory
  • Subcortical Learning
  • 10,000-Hours Rule
  • Thinking Routine
  • Training
  • Unlearning
  • Warm-Up Effect
  • Work–Rest Cycle

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Practice” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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