Deliberate Practice: What it is and what it isn’t

Mirjam Neelen & P.A. Kirschner

What does it take to become an expert? According to the influential deliberate practice theory, achieving expert performance requires a vast amount of deliberate practice. The term “deliberate practice” is used abundantly in the world of learning and education. However, as with many ‘magic words’ (Learning analytics! Grit! Mindset!), they are often incorrectly understood, explained, and/or applied (and sometimes they’re just plain nonsense).

Deliberate practice versus ‘just practice’

Patti Shank, well-known learning expert, researcher, and writer wrote a blog on deliberate practice back in May 2016 where she points out that people who are trying to improve their level of expertise set specific goals to improve their skills. However, in order for this practice to be ‘deliberate’ it actually needs to be taken a number of steps further.

According to Anders Ericsson (1993), who coined the term and has researched it for over 30 years, refers to deliberate practice as practice activities that maximise improvement throughout development toward expert performance. The key word here is expert! He’s not talking about being or becoming proficient or doing something well, but rather becoming an expert in something; being the best at something. Because constant individual instruction is too costly or not feasible, the teacher or coach must design practice activities that the individual can engage in between meetings with her/him.

Ericsson’s explanation clearly shows that deliberate practice is not simply practising something that you want to do better. Deliberate practice is extremely targeted. Each practise session should focus on something that you are almost able to do but not just yet. First, it must be very clear what you want to achieve and that whatever it is, it is to become an expert/topper in that area, whether it is tennis, playing the violin, or surgery. Second, the learning path has to be constantly monitored and adapted for your current level and the next level after that (think here of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development). The learning tasks and assignments consistently need to be designed so that you can take it one step further than your current level. This idea is very similar to Jeroen van Merriënboer’s 4C/ID design model and is explained in detail in Ten Steps to Complex Learning (Kirschner & Van Merriënboer, 2008, 2012). Next, extremely targeted practice, as deliberate practice is, requires large amounts of internal motivation. After all, you have to be willing to put in the required effort and make the necessary sacrifices to become the best. And last but not least, you need an experienced and knowledgeable teacher or coach to give you the effective feedback to optimise effectively and efficiently maximise your performance.

Shank also mentions the need for feedback from an expert as well as the need to get out of one’s comfort zone. We would like to add that the learner needs to put in serious, consistent effort and, for example give up certain habits or make certain sacrifices (e.g., going out, eating and not eating certain things, sacrificing much if not all free time, etc.). In other words: sweat alone isn’t enough; blood and tears are required as well. OK, of course this is a slight exaggeration, however it makes the point clear. To become an expert takes a lot more than ‘just practice’.

Why ‘just practice’ doesn’t make you an expert

So, why is ‘just’ regular practice not enough to gain expertise? Why can we not just practise for the 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell mentioned in his book Outliers? The key is that practice in itself isn’t enough. It’s far and foremost about how you practise and how you are coached within that practice. In a recent Freakonomics podcast, Ericsson says the following about Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule:

“Now, right. Gladwell basically thought that was kind of an interesting magical number and suggested that the key here is to reach that 10,000 hours. I think he’s really done something very important, helping people see the necessity of this extended training period before you reach high levels of performance. But I think there’s really nothing magical about 10,000 hours. Just the amount of experience performing may in fact have very limited chances to improve your performance. The key seems to be that deliberate practice, where you’re actually working on improving your own performance — that is the key process, and that’s what you need to try to maximize.”

When you’ve reached a certain level, you can ‘design’ your own learning activities as well. Shank explains that over time people need to be able to self-monitor their skills, find the mistakes, and adjust (i.e., they must self-regulate their learning). Many articles on workplace learning claim that professionals or knowledge workers are well able to do this. Well, you might be an expert in your field but that doesn’t necessarily make you an expert learner nor an expert in designing your own learning experiences. Shank’s warning makes sense. If you expect people to self-monitor too quickly, before they are able, they are lost.

This is also a reminder that, although you do learn while doing your job and working with others, it’s not the same as practise. It’s work. Shank points out that one of the reasons that ‘normal’ work doesn’t necessarily make us better is that the prerequisites such as specific goals and meaningful expert feedback are not there. Shank says:

“Rather than improve, we simply do what we usually do. We aren’t inclined to move out of our comfort zone during these times, for fear of making mistakes and looking stupid. In fact, we are likely on “autopilot” because we can’t take the time to slow down and “practise.”

This is exactly the point, and there’s more. It’s not just about making mistakes. Deliberate practice also means that you (yourself or with help from others) manage to ‘catch’ the mistakes that you make and which impede your achieving perfection/expertise and then find a way to eliminate them. If you don’t do that, you’re “just practising”. Regular practice can be extremely important sometimes. For example, if you need to master a certain procedure or be able to do something faster; that is, to become very proficient at something. However, through this type of practice you don’t achieve (a next level of) expertise or excellence!

Deliberate practice and what else it takes to achieve expertise

It’s clear that becoming an expert is not something that can be achieved over night. In her June 2016 blog, Shank points out that even deliberate practice is most likely not enough!  She summarises a meta-analysis (88 studies, 11,135 participants) conducted by Brooke Macnamara and colleagues who found that individual differences, such as intelligence and specific abilities, have an impact on expertise growth as well.

After its publication, Ericsson criticised the meta-analysis. Interestingly, one of his main criticisms is that Macnamara and her fellow authors do not define deliberate practice the correct way. Ericsson claims that they use the term deliberate practice to refer to a much broader and less defined concept. He basically says that they sum up every hour of any type of practice, which would imply that the impact of all types of practice activity on performance are equal. Ericsson goes on to say that this assumption is inconsistent with the evidence.

Macnamara c.s. has, in turn responded to Ericsson’s criticism. They claim that Ericsson’s definition of deliberate practice refers to “those training activities that were designed solely for the purpose of improving individuals’ performance by a teacher or the performers themselves” (p. 84). Therefore, they argue, deliberate practice could be designed by a teacher/coach or the performers themselves.

This debate is fascinating because it shows that the interpretation of what deliberate practice actually is, seems to be ‘all over the place’. Until everyone gets on the same page on what is and what isn’t deliberate practice, identifying the its role in achieving expertise compared to other ‘expertise drivers’ seems challenging to say the least. Can the true expert on this matter please rise?


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Ericsson, K. A. (2016). Summing up hours of any type of practice versus identifying optimal practice activities: Comments on Macnamara, Moreau, and Hambrick (2015). Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 351–354. Retrieved from

Ericsson, K. A., & Pool, R., (2016). Peak. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Gladwell, M., (2009). Outliers: The story of success. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.

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