New Study: Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect

By Alfie Kohn, The Washington Post, 7/25/14

We’ve long been eager to believe that mastery of a skill is primarily the result of how much effort one has put in. Extensive practice “is probably the most reasonable explanation we have today for success in any line, even for genius,” said the ur-behaviorist John B. Watson almost a century ago.

In 1993 [Swedish psychologist] Anders Ericsson reported data that seemed to confirm this view: What separates the expert from the amateur…isn’t talent; it’s thousands of hours of work. (Malcolm Gladwell, drawing from but misrepresenting Ericsson’s research — much to the latter’s dismay — announced the magic number was 10,000 hours.)

It’s daunting to imagine putting in that kind of commitment, but we’re comforted by the idea that practice is the primary contributor to excellence. Why?

1. Common sense: It seems obvious that the more time you spend trying to get better at something, the more proficient you’ll become. That’s why so many educators continue to invoke the old phrase “time on task,” which, in turn, drives demands for longer school days or years. [But] researchers have found that only when “achievement” is defined as rote recall do we discover a strong, linear relationship with time. When the focus is on depth of understanding and sophisticated problem solving, time on task doesn’t predict outcome very well at all.

2. Protestant work ethic: Many people simply don’t like the idea that someone could succeed without having paid his or her dues — or, conversely, that lots of deliberate practice might prove fruitless…. This explains why copious homework continues to be assigned despite dubious evidence that it provides any benefit… The recent enthusiasm for “grit”…is basically a repackaging of age-old exhortations to stick with whatever you’ve been told to do….

3. Nurture over nature: It’s more egalitarian to declare that geniuses are made, not born…. Evidence (from Carol Dweck and others) indicates students are more likely to embrace learning if they believe their performance results from effort, something under their control, rather than from a fixed level of intelligence that they either possess or lack.

For many of us, then, Ericsson’s conclusion has been deeply reassuring: Practice hard and you’ll do well. But along comes a brand-new meta-analysis, a statistical summary of 157 separate comparisons in 88 recent studies, that finds practice doesn’t play nearly as significant a role as we’d like to think.

“The evidence is quite clear that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice,” wrote Brooke Macnamara, David Hambrick, and Frederick Oswald in Psychological Science…. Deliberate practice…explains only 12% of the variance in the quality of performance…88% is explained by other factors.

But what other factors? It’s common to assume that if practice matters less than we thought, then inborn ability matters more — as if there are only two contributors to excellence….

That’s not necessarily true, however…. What else matters? There are many possible answers. One is how early in life you were introduced to the activity — which…appears to have effects that go beyond how many years of practice you booked. Others include how open you are to learning from others, and how much you enjoy the activity.

That last one — intrinsic motivation — has a huge empirical base of support in schools and elsewhere…. The pleasure one takes from an activity is a powerful predictor of success. For example, [researchers studied] the factors that helped third and fourth graders remember what they had been reading. They found that how interested the students were in the passage was thirty times more important than how “readable” the passage was….

Even if practice does predict success to some degree, that doesn’t mean it caused the success. Maybe the right question to ask is: Why do some people decide to practice a lot in the first place? Could it be because their first efforts proved mostly successful? (That’s a useful reminder to avoid romanticizing the benefits of failure.) Or, again, do they keep at it because they get a kick out of what they’re doing? If that’s true, then practice, at least to some extent, may be just a marker for motivation. Of course, natural ability probably plays a role in fostering both interest and success, and those two variables also affect each other.

But once we’ve introduced the possibility that interest plays an important role, we’d have to ask “Interest in what?” It doesn’t make sense to talk about the contribution of practice in the abstract. A lot depends on the task….

Practice explained 26% of the variance in achievement for games, 21% in musical accomplishment, 18% in sports, 4% in college grades, and less than 1% in professional success. What’s true of time on task, then, is true of practice — it depends on what you’re doing. When the task is more complicated and open-ended, a lot of factors come into play that collectively swamp the effect of how much work you put in.

One last point…. Ericsson’s conclusion that expert-level performance can be explained primarily by thousands of hours of practice…never had the relevance to education that some people claimed. It never supported the value of giving students lots of practice problems. Why? First, because we can’t simply assume that whatever promotes success in activities like music or chess also applies to, say, math or language arts.

Second, and more important, Ericsson was assessing the relative contribution of practice and talent. He didn’t look at whether the teacher’s goal was to reinforce an automatic response (borrow from the tens place, restate your conclusion in the last paragraph) as opposed to helping students make sense of ideas. In education — as opposed to, say, chess — everything depends on the kind of learning we want. Practice has much less of a role to play in promoting deep understanding than it does in expediting the memorization of algorithms or the reinforcement of behaviors….

Alfie Kohn is the author of 13 books on education and human behavior. See his thoughtful work at


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