Practice makes perfect, right?

Playing handbells has me thinking about practice. We played a particularly challenging song on Monday night, note that “challenging” is relative here. I was horrible. I had to stop playing and just listen because I lost my place, couldn’t read my notes, and in general gave up on the song. I need a lot more practice.


Many of our students need a lot more practice. But is all practice equal? Is merely trying to master the concept or skill over and over again effective? Much research says no, it isn’t. Hence the term “deliberate practice.” Here’s a good general description of deliberate practice: What is Deliberate Practice?

There are strategies we can use to help learners practice. Going back to my handbell music, it’s pretty useless if I just play it once a week during our dedicated “practice” time. I know myself, and I know I really won’t get much better for week to week, at least not enough to figure out this song. So I found the sheet music online, and now I can practice on my own, but that’s still not enough. The following are practice strategies:

  • Chunk the task into smaller tasks for mastery. With sheet music, that may literally mean only practicing a few measures at time. In problem solving or a task, it’s mastering one step at a time: addition first, then multiplication; writing an opinion, then forming a sentence, then creating a developed claim statement.
  • Go slower; fewer beats per second. In some cases, students might need more time. Others might need help slowing down so they can think about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
  • Use decoding strategies. In my case, colored highlighters for each note and big, flashing words when I need to change from a sharp to a natural bell. Students need help using the language of the discipline,
  • Give practice tasks at the appropriate level. There’s a section of the music that has more notes than I can count in beats, so I can’t practice these measures. They’re currently too difficult. If I practice them, I’ll practice them wrong, over and over. Practice that’s too hard or too easy, doesn’t take learners toward the mastery goal.

Yet there are times when practicing on your own just doesn’t cut it. At home, I have no handbells to play, so I pretend-ring pens. I also don’t get feedback like I do during rehearsals; there I can immediately hear if I’ve played the wrong note because it clashes with everyone else’s. Being at home, away from resources like other students and the teacher creates a difficult situation for some students because they need feedback. Some students might even lack proper materials, like I lack handbells, but there’s might be calculators or highlighters or even a quiet space to work. So students need a low-stakes way to practice in the classroom as well, with peers and on their own, and with feedback.

Like many students, I hope that when I go back to “class” next week and play the song again, my peers or my instructor will make note of my improvement. A little encouragement that all of the practice is paying off goes a long way.



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