The Machines of Mastery

By Ethan Mollick on Oneusefulthing.substack.com

Look at these graphs from a new paper tracking the test results of 7,000 learners across a wide variety of subjects. Each line shows the test scores of a student practicing a skill over a number of practice attempts (“opportunities”). You will notice something that even the paper’s authors found surprising.


Almost all of these lines have the exact same slope! That means that every student, regardless of their starting expertise or their rank within a class, gains roughly the same amount of skill and knowledge from practicing. In fact, the average student needs to practice seven times in the average subject to achieve a “reasonable level of mastery”1. Students who start out behind can catch up by practicing more, and more advanced students need to practice less, but everyone gets almost the same benefit from practice.

The paper concludes, excitingly: “Our evidence suggests that given favorable learning conditions for deliberate practice and given the learner invests effort in sufficient learning opportunities, indeed, anyone can learn anything they want.”

Note that the key words here are deliberate practice, a technique expounded on by the late Professor Anders Ericsson about how to achieve expertise. You may have encountered this concept in Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule (it takes 10,000 hours to make an expert). As many people, including Ericsson, pointed out – it is not the number of hours that you spend, but the fact that you spend them in deliberate practice, that builds expertise. But these new findings go further: we know that deliberate practice seems to work equally well for everyone at the same rate, regardless of subject or ability, a fascinating development that makes this technique even more important.

The pain and power of deliberate practice

Deliberate practice is powerful, but it also can be hard. In fact, it has to be. Unlike passive forms of learning, it requires a proactive and intentional approach to skill development. This process begins with breaking down a skill into its constituent parts, and building each part one step at a time. It is a gradual and systematic approach that ensures that each new skill is built upon a solid foundation of existing knowledge.

For deliberate practice to be truly effective, learners must bring their full focus and engagement to the task at hand. This can be challenging, as the work required is often difficult and demanding. Failure is common. In fact, one of the key aspects of deliberate practice is that it embraces failure as an opportunity for growth. When learners encounter obstacles or make mistakes, they are encouraged to reflect on what went wrong and what they can do differently next time. This process of continuous improvement is crucial to making lasting progress.

Like exercise, deliberate practice is designed to always be challenging, pushing learners out of their comfort zone and forcing them to stretch their abilities. This may feel difficult at first, but over time, learners develop a growth mindset and become more confident in their abilities. And deliberate practice benefits greatly from ongoing, personalized feedback from an expert instructor. This feedback helps learners identify their strengths and weaknesses, and provides actionable insights into how they can continue to improve.

Well-designed practice has to have all of these elements: a step-by-step approach, sustained engagement, a chance to make meaningful mistakes, continually increasing challenges, and ongoing feedback. Opportunities for deliberate practice are relatively easy to find in fields that have a lot of students: sports, math, musical instruments, and learning foreign languages, to name a few. In each case, there are many trained teachers, with good lesson plans, easy access to practice, and well-thought out approaches. But in most jobs, ranging from entrepreneurship to leadership, there are few opportunities to practice until you actually start doing things. And that can be a problem.

But here is where technology can help.

Deliberate practice at scale: simulations and games

Military trainers, as well as Tom Cruise fans, have long had a powerful example of the value of games and simulations for deliberate practice. The story begins in Vietnam, where, as the Vietnam War started, American fighter pilots were feeling extremely confident, and for good reason. During the war in Korea, American pilots had performed brilliantly against North Korean, Chinese, and Russian pilots in the first all-jet dogfights in history, achieving an exchange ratio of 10 to 1. That is, for every American plane shot down, the Americans managed to destroy ten enemy planes. Vietnam, however, turned into a very different experience. Due to a combination of capable pilots, shifting tactics, and changes in aircraft, the Vietnamese were much more successful against their American foes. By 1968, the exchange ratio had fallen to 3.7 to1.The fall of 1968 was marked by the beginning of a three-year halt in the bombing campaign over North Vietnam, and thus began a time when American pilots did not generally fly combat missions. In that year, the Navy commissioned a report to examine the relative failures of the air war of Vietnam, which identified training as a key gap. From this report, the Naval Fighter Weapons School, better known by movie fans as Top Gun. Top Gun changed the concept of pilot training, turning it into a competitive game, a simulation with real fighter jets between trainees and instructors who flew Vietnamese planes using Vietnamese tactics. All built around the concept of deliberate practice. And, while the Navy put its pilots through Top Gun, the Air Force also reviewed their performance in Vietnam. However, they ignored the training problem, choosing instead to invest in better missiles, improved planes, and high-technology cannons.


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