The Right Kind of Practice

What single thing must you do to learn organic chemistry? Sam and I have given you the answer several times: practice solving problems. But is that all you have to do? Can you just open the book to a problem, work on it, and learn organic chemistry? Maybe you can, maybe you can’t. Not all practice makes perfect.

In “Not All Practice Makes Perfect” (Nautilus, 21 April 2016), Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool tell several stories about practice. In some cases the people who practice long hours develop extraordinary talents. In others, the people quickly learn a few basics, but never move beyond a certain point. Long hours of practice don’t seem to help.

One hypothesis is that the first kind of people possess some innate gift or talent that makes practice work for them. The second kind of people, poor souls, lack this gift and their practice is wasted.

While individual differences certainly exist, we should never be too quick to underestimate our capacity to change and learn. As our lives march along we develop in countless ways that we rarely pay attention to. Ericsson and Pool maintain that our capacity to learn plus the right kind of practice can take all of us to new levels that we might never have guessed possible.

You should read the article to learn more about the purposeful practice that the authors deem most effective, but in a nutshell it has four characteristics:

  • Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals
  • Purposeful practice is focused
  • Purposeful practice involves feedback
  • Purposeful practice requires getting out of one’s comfort zone

Read the full article here. Then figure out how to implement each of these suggestions. Hint on feedback: we’re here to help. A 10 minute discussion of a couple of chemistry problems with Sam and me can often provide some really good pointers for future learning.

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