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. Advice varies according to the level and type of functioning or expertise desired – ranging from unreflective repetition that’s aimed at automatic action to highly structured and meticulously analyzed exercise that’s intended to support high-level performance. Prominent subdiscourses include:
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Effortful Practice 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.
  • 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.
  • Productive Failure (Manu Kapur) is an extension of the notion of Productive Struggle that moves the discussion to more 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.
  • 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.
  •  Productive Struggle 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.
  • Learning Curve Theory (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).

  • Forgetting Curve (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).
  • Automaticity – the ability to perform a task without conscious thought. Automaticity is often a result of repetitive practice.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.


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 Learning (Dis)Abilities Theories, 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.


  • Automaticity
  • Deliberate Practice
  • Desirable Difficulty
  • Effortful Practice
  • Forgetting Curve
  • Learning Curve Theory
  • Mastery Learning
  • Overlearning
  • Productive Failure
  • Productive Struggle
  • Rote Learning
  • Speed Learning
  • 10,000-Hours Rule
  • Training

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Practice” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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