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In contrast to the “mindless” repetition of a certain task or attributing expertise to innate talent, deliberate practice is considered to be more effective in part because it is more cerebral – requiring reflection, introspection, and purposeful action. 

In our current hyper-competitive world, the acquisition of new skills and upskilling existing ones continue throughout our lives for advancement at work or in a personal capacity. Learning a new skill, however, is not straightforward, especially as adults. Traditionally, learning a new skill involved observing and countless hours of repeated practice. If the objective is to learn for fun this approach is acceptable. However, if precision and expertise is desired, practice alone does not make perfect.


One of the most well-known and highly studied theories behind skill and expertise development is called Deliberate Practice. Introduced in the early 90’s by Anders Ericsson and popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, Deliberate Practice is an examined model of skill development where proficiency is the intended goal.


Within the concept of deliberate practice, training is a highly structured activity explicitly directed at improvement of performance in a particular domain. Whether you aim to learn a new sport, gain better leadership skills, or learn how to excise a tumor precisely, using a model of deliberate practice will require breaking down of tasks to their elements and a goal-oriented approach to skill building.


In contrast to the “mindless” repetition of a certain task or attributing expertise to innate talent, deliberate practice is considered to be more cerebral – requiring reflection, introspection, and purposeful action. 

Deliberate practice leads to progressive learning and improved skill performance through the following.


 This involves understanding and practicing the various components that make up the skill. For example: The surgical excision of tumor has 

  • A knowledge component (anatomy, approaches, potential risks and injuries)

  • A cognitive component (sustained focus, problem solving, attention to detail, memory of knowledge)

  • A sensorimotor component (tool manipulation, surgical excision, suturing, etc.) and 

  • Team management (role of surgeon, anesthetist, nurse, etc).

Working on each of these components through methodical and relevant tasks and practising them are critical to skill development.


While practicing the skill or its components, it is helpful for opportunities for assessment and reflection to be in-built. The identification of strengths and weaknesses through self-reflection or assessment allow individuals to build their knowledge or focus practice on gap areas while further hone their strengths.  


This will be especially helpful when the feedback is individualized and traced back to the sub-skill level. 


To understand why deliberate practice is effective, it is important to understand how skill learning occurs.

Whether it is a cognitive skill (learning a new language), a psychomotor skill (learning how to surgically remove a tumor), or an interpersonal skill (learning how to de-escalate a dangerous situation) skill acquisition happens in three phases of development: 

A) Cognitive

B) Associative

C) Autonomous


The cognitive phase involves understanding what needs to be done, having some prior information, and processing that information i.e. knowledge building. The associative stage involves conscious performance, immense practice, errors and adjustments. In this phase the learner presents with awkward movements, many errors, re-calibration based on errors/feedback, string of small and increasingly large movements which slow continuous progress. In this stage the knowledge is associated or linked to the performance. Automatic stage occurs after years of practice and training, cognitive processes required are minimal and knowledge can be applied to new or challenging situations and the individual “automatically” comes up with strategies to overcome/ respond to the new situation.


Although it may seem like achieving the automatic stage is the goal of deliberate practice, it is considered to be counterproductive. Achieving the automatic stage may indicate that there is no more learning, and therefore leads to a plateau of skills. Neural pathways are strengthened but variations and heterogeneity are not welcome.


Deliberate practice emphasizes and thrives in the cognitive and associative phase. By magnifying the individual components that form the skillset, gaps and strengths are easily identified which can be worked on through meaningful feedback and task-oriented practice. The objective is to achieve a level of expertise where responses appear almost automatic but in reality, are intentional actions refined by endless practice, and exposure to a large variety of situations.


The principles of deliberate practice have been successfully applied to a variety of fields such as chess, music, education, athletics. A meta-analyses of studies revealed that simulation-based medical education designed according to principles of deliberate practice was superior to traditional clinical medical education in achieving clinical skill acquisition goals and better long term retention. Similar findings were also observed in the surgical field, where individuals who were trained using a deliberate practice approach showed improved dexterity, higher quality of procedure, and superior transferability to practice. Studies involving anesthesiologists reported that individuals engaged in deliberate practice achieved expert status earlier than their peers who pursued traditional techniques of learning and reported a plateauing of their skills. Expertise was also associated with resiliency, better recovery from challenging situations and a better quality of life, highlighting the value of deliberate practice as a teaching tool for future healthcare professionals.


Virtual reality technology can facilitate deliberate practice by presenting real and hypothetical situations, matched to the learners needs and capabilities. Within VR, learners can target specific areas of learning, have individualized learning plans, break down the task into its elements, and obtain real-time feedback. Within a safe environment, individuals can make errors and try different strategies over countless repetitions while tracking their progress. These features make VR a good platform for designing deliberate practice session.


If expertise is desired, then a deliberate practice model should be considered when designing your training.

- Gayatri Aravind is Dark Slope’s Science Director and Advisor on Learning Science. Contact us to learn more about how your organization can use XR technologies to improve team training.

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