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In our exploration of vocational learning from the perspective of the ‘learning sciences’ we proposed that there are five different kinds of practice (1):

  1. ‘Getting the feel’: on first trying something new, the body has no recollection of how an action should ‘feel’; no ‘muscle memory’. Over time, the body establishes a template of how it ‘feels’ when the action seems to be going well.
  2. ‘Automating’: until ‘muscle memory’ has been established, the golfer makes unreliable shots. The learner is able to automate the skills to the point when conscious thought is no longer required for each element of the action. Although the golfer may still need to process distance and wind speed, he does not need to consider his swing. Time, determination, and attention are required at this stage of practice (2).
  3. ‘Picking out the hard parts’: when an action does not lead to the desired outcome, the learner deconstructs that action to consider at which part the process erred (3).
  4. ‘Improvising’: automated practice can become staid and lacking in creativity. Effective practice can involve a level of playfulness in trying new ways of working.
  5. ‘Doing it for real’: skills become refined when they are tested in real-life situations, which may be competitive, stressful, or pressured in some way.

We concluded this proposition with the recommendation that good teaching will interweave these five kinds of practice, explaining the purpose for each to learners.

More than the length of experience, reputation, and perceived mastery of knowledge and skill, ‘deliberate practice’ is key to successful mastery of activities and actual, observed performance (4) and may also be critical to the maintenance of expert levels of performance (5). Deliberate practice involves a focus on improving particular tasks. Anders Ericsson proposes that it also involves the provision of immediate feedback, time for problem-solving and evaluation, and opportunities for repeated performance to refine behaviour.

Mechanic teaching an intern the best practice. Learning on the job during a practical internship in a garage

Studies of deliberate practice have spanned competitive sports, including darts, chess, and football; typing and decision making; and professional domains including teaching, insurance sales, and strategic and organisational consulting (5). Helen Lie’s review of the literature on deliberate practice found that what constitutes deliberate practice varies from one domain to another. In a range of studies, it has been reported as owning books, taking a class, practising alone, practising with a group, seeking a quiet study environment, being mindful when performing regular job duties, and reading scientific literature. Other practices include practising the hard bits, speeding things up, slowing them down, chunking it up, and so forth.

While confirming support for the importance of deliberate practice, other studies found that it may not be sufficient on its own to explain expertise (6) and that other factors came into play such as working memory capacity. Nevertheless, the significance of deliberate practice makes it imperative that practice should be a focus of teaching and learning activities.

Learning by Practising in Vocational Education

Michael Eraut introduced another element to practising with his idea of ‘time available’ and the ‘crowdedness of the situation’ (7) to explain how the effect of time affects the way we think when learning:

Shortage of time forces people to adopt a more intuitive approach, while the intuitive routines developed by experience enable people to do things more quickly. Crowded contexts also force people to be more selective with their attention and to process their incoming information more rapidly. Under conditions of rapid interpretation and decision-making, meta-processes are limited to implicit monitoring and short reactive reflections. However, as more time becomes available, the role of meta-processes becomes more complex, expanding beyond self-awareness and monitoring to include the framing of problems, thinking about the deliberative process itself and how it is being handled, searching for relevant knowledge, introducing value considerations and so on. (7)

A specific and important kind of practising is a mental rehearsal. Sports psychology has generated a good deal of useful practical knowledge about how to use imagination and undertake high quality. This knowledge is useful to apprentices and vocational learners, just as it is to athletes. Indeed, this knowledge has begun to be applied in a range of fields. Here, for instance, is a surgeon talking about the way he prepares for an operation:

A lot of times … I will look at the angiogram – the dye study that shows the aneurysm and the anatomy around it. And typically what we will do is position the patient, prep the wound, look at the angiogram films and kind of imprint them in your mind. And then just go out into the scrub sink where you are by yourself. You’ve got five minutes there. And all you’re doing is just scrubbing your hands and it’s just a time of rote activity … and that’s the time I’ll try to piece together the anatomy with what I am about to do … I try to picture what I am going to see when I get there, because the x-rays are taken at a couple of fixed angles straight on or from the side, and we are coming in at a 20-degree angle to that. (8)

Students do better in exams if they have rehearsed in imagination (9). Principals do better in a tricky meeting if they have imaginatively rehearsed it beforehand. Musicians learn faster if they supplement their hours of practice with mental rehearsal (10). Though we know of no direct research, there must be a strong presumption that apprentice welders and student nursery nurses would also benefit from such practical knowledge about how to maximise the efficiency and reliability of their own learning.

Vocational teachers need to be able to give clear guidance as to how practice can be most effective, whether for example, an activity needs to be broken down into its component parts, done against the clock, deliberately slowed down, done without being able to see, and so on.


  1. Claxton, G., Lucas, B. & Webster, R. (2010). Bodies of Knowledge: How the learning sciences could transform practical and vocational education. Edge/Centre for RealWorld Learning.
  2. Ericsson, A. (2002). Attaining Excellence Through Deliberate Practice: Insights from the study of expert performance. In Ferrari, M. (ed.) The Pursuit of Excellence Through Education. Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.
  3. Perkins, D. (2009). Making Learning Whole: How seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  4. Ericsson, K. A. (2008). Deliberate Practice and Acquisition of Expert Performance: A general overview. Academic Emergency Medicine
  5. Lie, H. (2011). Deliberate Practice in Professional Speaking Expertise. Doctoral thesis, University of San Francisco
  6. Campitelli, G. & Gobet, F. (2011). Deliberate Practice: Necessary but not sufficient. Current Directions in Psychological Science
  7. Eraut, M. (2000). Non-Formal Learning, Implicit Learning and Tacit Knowledge in Professional Work. In Coffield, F. (ed.) The Necessity of Informal Learning. Bristol: The Policy Press
  8. Brown, C. (2001). The Cutting Edge: Performance psychology with surgeons. [Online]. San Francisco. Retrieved on Sep. 24, 2012, from www.fps-performance.com/library_article.php?page=article_cutting_edge
  9. Taylor, S. (1991). Positive Illusions: Creative self-deception and the healthy mind. New York: Basic Books.
  10. Markman, K., Klein, W. & Suhr, J. (eds.) (2009). Handbook of Imagination and Mental Stimulation, New York: Psychology Press.

Lucubrate Magazine August 2019

The article is from the report “How to teach vocational education: A theory of vocational pedagogy” by Bill Lucas, Ellen Spencer and Guy Claxton, The City & Guilds Centre for Skills Development (December 2012)

Seventeen effective pedagogical methods in vocational education
Learning by Practising in Vocational Education

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