Is Your Personal Practice Effective At All

My whole life I have heard it said that “Practice Makes Perfect”. I have also heard that there are three stages of learning – “Unconscious – Incompetence”, “Conscious – Incompetence” and “Unconscious – Competence”. The third stage is reached when, by virtue of sheer repetition, muscle and mind memory, the action becomes automatic. When I reach the third stage, I no longer have to think about the task. I do it automatically.  It’s like riding a bicycle or swimming or driving a car. Wouldn’t it be ideal for you to be in that state when entering an exam hall?

Repeat It A Thousand Times And Even A Fool Can Become Good At Anything.

Student Studying Hard

On several occasions, I have said to myself with determination that I will repeat an activity a thousand times and become perfect at it. My cousin who was weak in maths, said the day after the results were declared, that he would sit every day for two weeks and do a thousand sums in maths so that it would never trouble him again. As far as I know, he could not pull it off fully, and still finds maths tough!

I have myself been a victim of such promises. When I missed too many easy baskets at a basketball match, I was determined to practice throwing 1000 baskets the next week.

I actually did it.

It did give me confidence, although I am not so sure that it improved my game!

In a recent golf tournament, I hit too many bad shots off the tee. It spoilt the rest of my game too. I was determined to set it right and decided to hit 200 balls every day at the golf range for the next two weeks.

I actually did hit 200 balls a day for two weeks.

Did it make me a better golfer or a more experienced poor golfer? I think the latter – because it gave me confidence for a few days all right, until my next bad round of golf!

Somehow, these bursts of practices do not seem to last long and break down in a competitive environment.

The logic applies to studies too. If I do not understand a concept and I decide to read it over and over again in my house, it will not help. You may learn it by heart due to sheer repetition, but asked to apply it in solving a problem – and it will be the same story again.

Determining to solve 100 difficult problems every day for a week, may actually not be a solution at all.

So – does “Practice Make Perfect”?

I doubt it.

The 10,000 Hr Rule.

Sustained practice is definitely necessary for you to succeed in any activity. Many authors who have studied the life history of famous athletes, musicians or experts in any field, have found one thing in common. Each of them had to put in enormous amounts of hard work and gruelling, grinding, consistent practice. They also found that everyone had to face personal challenges. They overcame these by sheer determination and a sustained burning desire to become a champion. They did not give up. They kept at it with a firm belief that one day they would arrive – and they all actually did.

Look at the lives of people like Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt or even Thomas Edison and President Obama. The common factor is sustained practice even in the face of temporary debacles.

There is a lesson to be learnt here. Hard and long hours of work, dedication to the sport or activity, sustained effort even in the face of set – backs, and a passionate desire to succeed – are a must.

Personally speaking, every now and then, I become very determined to play good golf. I then head to the range and hit 500 balls. In this manner, I must have gone to the golf range hundreds of times, hit over 10,000 balls, but I am nowhere near Tiger Woods at the game. Heck, I haven’t even won a local tournament for years now. Why?

Let’s talk about you.

Let’s say that you find that you are not able to solve some typical problems in Fluid Mechanics. You take out a book which has solved examples (or buy one) and go through them carefully. You try solving them on your own and get stuck with some problems. You take a look at the solved example and try again, with more problems. After a couple of attempts, you are able to solve them yourself. You are now confident that if the same type of problem comes in the exam, you can tackle it.

Boy At Work

You encounter more such difficult problems. You repeat the process. You are once again confident of solving the same type of problem if it comes in the exam. By this method you may be able to learn to solve 4 to 5 different types of problems. What happens if a still different type of problem now appears in the exam? It does not take an expert to recognise that you will definitely be stuck again.

The method of repetition makes you confident of solving similar problems in the future. Does it mean that you have to now buy as many books as possible and practice all different types of problems – at least 50 times? If you are only dealing with one subject, you may actually be able to do that, but given 10 different subjects (like it is in Mechanical Engineering) it is not practical to do that. Moreover, this confidence is only temporary and vanishes when you see a different type of problem!

Here is another example. Say you are a weight-lifter. You find that you are able to lift only 25kg in a particular type of lift.

You go off to the gym and start serious weight lifting practice.

Initially, you can lift only 25kgs .Gradually you find an improvement and you can now lift 26 kgs. The following week you are able to lift 27kgs. In a month or so you reach 30kgs. Now what? It is not practical to keep improving at the same pace. The improvement slows down till it plateaus. You may do what you like, but you will not be able to improve it further. It is similar to your Fluid Mechanics practice.

Practice is definitely necessary – in fact lots of it – it matters. BUT it is not enough. You may reach the “Unconscious – Competence” level, but that level is also not good enough.

You cannot just practice to the point of dexterity and hope for excellence. Beyond this stage you need to develop a keener sense of feeling, observation and attention so that your practice is correctly oriented. You also need to know enough about the topic to correct your practice. If not, your practice will not yield results, or will be an endless series of time consuming trial and errors. This will cost you both time and money.

Self-Correction Has Limitations

You cannot easily correct yourself.

In order to perform self – correction you not only have to be good at the subject but also a good coach (or teacher). In such a case you do not require practice in the first place!

Einstein, Edison and Newton – all had a very keen sense of observation. They were able to see themselves from a distance and apply corrections to their work or philosophies. Most of us are not endowed with such brilliance. We need outside assistance to show us where we are going wrong or not doing it correctly.

Outside assistance can be in the form of books. Reading from books requires correct interpretation before implementation. If we find that it is not working, we need to apply corrections and discover what actually works. Moreover, what works for someone, may not work for you. So, we need to study, implement, correct and do this consistently to expect positive results. The interpretation is not easy and cannot be verified until you try it out and see if it works. It is a time consuming process and also not definite.

Study materials of good quality are available in plenty. You can definitely use them for your preparation – but they do not simulate the exam pressure or atmosphere. They also do not provide immediate and accurate feedback of whether you are doing it right. If you happen to look into the solutions, say because you are stuck with a problem, you lose the opportunity of thinking about it from a different point of view. Even if you have only the answer given at the end of the book, and you look at it to see if you are right, you will get the hint and finally arrive at the answer – may be for the wrong reasons. All in all, you do not gain full confidence by simply going through the study materials. They are, at best an aid and not the end.

Practicing by reading books also has another limitation. Periodic measurement of our performance is necessary in any improvement process. You cannot measure your performance by reading books. And, what cannot be measured cannot be improved, because you won’t know when you have improved.

Coaches Can Help

Coaching from experts is, nowadays, a popular and accepted form of assistance. Coaches are trained and experienced to identify your fault and suggest corrective measures. Most often, we cannot see the fault that we are committing, ourselves. This not only true in problem solving, but in other walks of life – like in sport. In sports we often feel that we can observe our own faults and correct them because the results are immediately available. We can apply corrections repeatedly and again see the results.

It is not true.

Without a coach, you can only see the results of your correction, not yourself. If it works, you cannot be sure as to why it worked. It becomes guesswork. Usually, faults get compounded as we correct one fault by introducing another. Often, such result oriented practice does not hold in times of stress (as in an exam). It is sure to break down. That is precisely why hitting a thousand shots does not guarantee success in a tournament. Solving 100 problems does not mean you can solve all problems in an exam.

Coaching Classes

I firmly believe that coaching classes help you to practice properly. Believe me, I never used to believe in these earlier – I always thought I could coach myself by sheer practice and extensive reading. I felt that I could bulldoze through with sheer practice. Unfortunately, it does not work. You need constant feedback as to whether you’re doing it right – whether you have interpreted correctly. We are very often blind to our own faults.

Stress and anxiety play a major role in exams and competitive sport. Both affect your performance. You need, therefore, to factor these also into your practice regime. Otherwise the practice may not be effective. In coaching classes they provide you the facility of taking mock tests which simulate exam pressure. It is very difficult to do it by yourself at home!

Coaching classes also fill in the gaps you necessarily acquire in college. College environment is oriented towards getting a degree – passing an exam – whereas an in depth understanding of concepts and practice in solving different types of problems is needed in competitive exams. You need to revise all the concepts you learnt (or heard of) in college. You need to practice with intention – make more mistakes and use them as learning opportunities. Coaching classes force you to do this. Moreover, the coaching classes target specific exams, hence they train the “right muscles”.

Nowadays, most exams are on- line and they do not allow you to take even your calculator inside. They provide you with a virtual calculator. GATE exam is one such example. Here you need to practice on line. This facility is provided in coaching classes and you cannot do it yourself.

I strongly recommend that you join some good coaching class. It widens your horizon and exposes you to many aspects you may not be familiar with. They also provide you feedback so that you can make the practice beneficial in the shortest possible time. Do not be under the misconception that by working very hard at home, you derive all the benefits available compared to what you will receive in formal coaching.

Remember that coaching classes are not only meant for “weak students”. As a culture we used to believe that coaching classes or private tuition was meant for weak students only. It used to be a taboo in our younger days to attend these study groups – only those who failed attended such classes. Now the scene has totally changed. If you want to excel in any exam – you have to beat a lot of competition. You have to become really good. You have to put in meaningful and beneficial practice – simply “working hard” at home will not do.

Think about it.

About the Author

Brig Raghavendra Rao is a retired army officer (Brigadier), a retired Director from a Public Sector Undertaking and a full time academician since 2006. He has been on both sides for students seeking jobs - and he knows what employers look for - and (sadly) what students lack. He has created this blog to reduce that gap.

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