Getting Gritty: Practice Like You Mean It

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have been trying to master some Christmas songs on my keyboard for, oh, about two years now. It has not gone well for several reasons: One, I tend to give up when things get hard and two, I am teaching myself from scratch.

Anyway, the past weekend, I was giving “Good King Wenceslas” the old college try again, and I found myself getting stuck at the same place over and over. It’s at the end of the song where there is a quick chord change from C to G7 to F. These changes turn my version of the song into a dirge since it takes about two minutes for me to get my fingers in the right spot.

But this time, things were different. I actually used some of the skills I’d learned in researching grit, practice, and student success. Usually, when I’d get to this hard part, I’d play on and then start over from the beginning. But this time, I stopped, isolated where I was going wrong, and practiced that section several times until I was more comfortable with making the chords. Now, no one is going to be asking me to accompany their Christmas cantata, but progress was made.

So, according to researchers, what are some of the things to keep in mind when practicing, whether it’s music, math, composition, or anything at all? Here are some tips:

  • Correct as quickly as you can. (My problem in practicing the piano was that, instead of correcting my mistake at the end of the song, I returned and started over where it was easier. The result was that I got really good at the beginning, but the ending didn’t seem to improve. Now, I focus on where I went wrong and fixing that spot before I move on.) This is one of the advantages of the flipped classroom where practice is done in class; there is less practicing of the wrong way.  
  •  As much as drill is a dirty word in some educational settings, it’s important to learn some skills to the point of automatic functioning. (Sports coaches know this.) It’s not a lot of fun practicing chords (or multiplication tables or orders of operations or comma placement). But the less you have to think about basic skills, the more energy you can put into more advanced ones.
  • Have a specific purpose for each homework or practice session. (And getting them finished so that you can watch cat videos online doesn’t count.)
  • Don’t repeat. Redo differently. One of the mistakes that beginning college students make (or people in general) is that we redouble our efforts instead of analyzing where we went wrong. That’s often why the same mistakes show up again and again. 
  • Isolate the skills. Students are often in a hurry to get finished with an assignment. When I’ve asked students where they went wrong on a homework assignment, they are often puzzled by the question. But we are not totally ignorant of what we’re doing. We start out fine and then something goes wrong. Being able to isolate what the problem is and when it occurs in the process is very helpful in solving that problem.
  • Practice on a regular basis. You’ve heard it all your lives, and it’s true: Shorter, regular practice/study sessions are more effective than cramming.
  • Put the skills in context. Sure, you may practice chords or commas in isolation, but if they stay there, they’re not much good in the real world. (I’ve had more than one student who could place commas correctly in sentences in worksheets, but could never transfer that skill into actual essays.)

Here’s the bad news: If you’re one of those folks who find homework something to be endured and done with the purpose of getting a check mark in a teacher’s grade book, then you’re going to have a harder time truly learning a subject.

Here’s the good news: If you start to view homework and practice as a chance to really learn something and improve your skills, you will be amazed at  how much more interesting the subject can be and how much better you’ll perform.

If you want to know more about improving your skills, here are some good books:

Daniel Coyle. The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills.

Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi. Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better.

Ken Bain. What the Best College Students Do.





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