The Secret to Learning and Teaching Skills Effectively

November 25, 2021

Think back to a time when you learned a new skill like riding a bike or driving a car. The first time you tried was probably slow or stressful, and you were told you needed a lot of improvement. However, you tried again and again and improved each time. With years of practice, feedback from others, and maybe some mistakes along the way, you can now bike or drive without even thinking about the actions that were so hard to grasp that first time.

We have all learned new skills through this process of practice and feedback growing up, but for some reason, traditional education models neglect to use the same process in teaching students. Online courses, schools, and universities advertise the invaluable skills they teach, but they only offer lectures, assessments, and impersonal feedback. Most of these programs fail to provide the essential elements of skills mastery: consistent practice and meaningful feedback.

To be effective lifelong learners and establish a culture for learning, we can use the same tried and tested method for learning skills from our childhood with some help from psychological research. Based on extensive observation of top performers in skills development, researchers have broken down several key factors that influence skills mastery that both learners and teachers can leverage.

Here are five tips for how you can learn and teach skills using deliberate practice and targeted feedback.

1. Approach learning and practice intentionally with specific and realistic goals.

While a big, aspirational goal like “run a marathon” can provide a spark of enthusiasm in a novice runner, it doesn’t offer the lasting fuel to follow through. Instead, research shows it is more effective to break down a large goal down into small, specific, and realistic goals like increasing average miles run by one per week. Goals like this are specific enough that a learner focuses on them each time they run, which fuels more intentional and effective practice. The bite-sized goal also keeps a learner motivated because they can actually achieve it.

2. Cut out distractions.

When it comes to practice, research shows quality is often more important than quantity. Listening to hours of a podcast on budgeting every week might make a person feel like they are improving their money management skills, however, the knowledge is only surface level. An hour spent focused on the activity, like making a budget, is more effective for reinforcing knowledge than several hours of distracted learning.

3. Get timely access to relevant feedback.

In professional sports, technologies that analyze performance have exploded in popularity because teams understand the performance gains that come with access to more feedback. The same need for feedback applies for anyone trying to improve in a skill. As one skills researcher notes, “No matter what you're trying to do, you need feedback to identify where and how you are falling short. Without feedback … you cannot figure out what you need to improve on or how close you are to achieving your goal” (Ericsson & Pool, 2016: 17).

4. Take time to reflect.

Personal reflection is an often unacknowledged but essential element in learning new skills that goes hand in hand with the practice and feedback cycle. By reflecting on their accumulated experiences in practice, a learner engages in cognitive and emotional processes that can lead to insights for improvement. Feedback also requires a learner to reflect on its relevance and how to apply it to future practice. Reflection can help unlock new areas for improvement, even for experts who already have extensive practice.

5. Be willing to leave your comfort zone.

Perhaps most importantly, anyone learning a new skill needs to be willing to step outside their comfort zone and challenge themselves. Being a beginner requires vulnerability to try, fail, and ask for help. No one said learning a new skill is easy, but embracing the challenge can make it much more enjoyable.

If you are either trying to learn or teach a set of skills, think back to how you best learned when you were little; if it worked well then, why should it be different now?  With deliberate practice, you can not only learn skills more effectively, but also establish a culture for learning both in your professional and personal life. The better you learn new skills, the easier it is to teach them later, and all of this can can help you foster an innovator’s mindset.

Go forth and learn new skills!



De Corte, Erik & Masui, Chris. “Enhancing The Learning Proficiency of Students in Higher Education”. (2010).

Di Stefano, Giada, Francesca Gino, Gary P. Pisano, and Bradley Staats. "Making Experience Count: The Role of Reflection in Individual Learning." Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 14-093, March 2014. (Revised June 2016.)

Ericsson, Karl & Krampe, Ralf & Tesch-Roemer, Clemens. “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”. Psychological Review. 100. 363-406. (1993).

Miranda Johnson
Research Intern

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