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:
  • Automaticity – owing to extensive Practice, action sequences that are so well learned that no conscious control is needed for expert execution. Such 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
  • 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.
  • 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 (Spaced Practice)  refers to a structured mode of study that involves engaging with manageable amounts of content, spread out over time (contrast: Massed Practice). It is associated with:
    • Spacing Effect (Distributed Practice Effect) – the phenomenon associated with Distributed Practice – namely, that short and spaced study sessions lead to better mastery than long and continuous ones
  • 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.
  • 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 (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).
  • 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.
  • 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).

  • 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.
  • 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) 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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
  • Blocked Practice
  • Deliberate Practice
  • Desirable Difficulty
  • Distributed Practice (Spaced Practice)
  • Effortful Practice
  • Exponential Learning
  • Forgetting Curve
  • Homework
  • Interleaving Learning
  • Learning Curve Theory
  • Learning Loss (Summer Learning Loss; Summer Slide)
  • Massed Practice (Cramming)
  • Mastery Learning
  • Overlearning
  • Productive Failure
  • Productive Struggle
  • Rote Learning
  • Spacing Effect (Distributed Practice Effect)
  • Speed Learning
  • 10,000-Hours Rule
  • Training

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Practice” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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