Teaching Students to Be Experts: The Science Behind Learning

February 12, 2024
Ann Smiley


To be an effective coach, it’s essential to understand how people absorb knowledge and skills. This article takes a deep dive into the science behind the acquisition of expertise in video games. We’ll cover the critical role that mental representations play in becoming an expert, and explain how focused practice under the guidance of an expert coach will cement those images in students’ minds.

Expertise Depends on Mental Representations

💡 Players’ expertise largely derives from the sophisticated mental representations developed through extended experience with their game.

Mental representations are psychological constructs that the mind uses to understand, interpret, and interact with the world. They can include images, concepts, scripts, or any other information that the mind can use to simulate reality. For example, when you are looking for your keys, your search is guided by your memory of what they look like. When you are thinking about what to have for dinner and weighing the pros and cons of the available options, you are using your knowledge of those options and your current preferences to guide that decision.

When you pursue a specific strategy in a game, you are using a set of task-specific mental representations to carry out that strategy and adapt it to your current circumstances. As Ericsson & Pool (2016) put it, these task-specific representations are “patterns of information — facts, images, rules relationships, and so on — that are held in long-term memory and that can be used to respond quickly and effectively in certain types of situations” (p. 153). The main benefit of having these representations comes from how they help us deal with the information we are presented with in-game — from understanding and interpretation to analysis and decision making.

What sets expert performers apart from everyone else is the quality and quantity of their task-specific mental representations. Through extended practice, they have developed highly complex and sophisticated representations of the various situations they are likely to encounter in their game (e.g., the vast number of board arrangements in chess). These representations allow experts to make faster, more accurate decisions and respond more quickly and effectively in a given situation. This, more than anything else, explains the difference in performance between novices and experts (Ericsson & Pool, 2016, p. 155).

These sophisticated mental representations are a result of the way that extended practice has changed the neural circuitry in their brains. These changes are what make it possible for experts to have the incredible memory, pattern recognition, and problem-solving abilities they display in their preferred game. How, then, can we go about developing the kinds of sophisticated mental representations required for expert-level performance?

Deliberate Practice Builds Mental Representations

💡 Deliberate practice refers to the techniques that experts employ to enhance their task-specific mental representations and improve their performance.

The science on expertise suggests that the best way to develop sophisticated task-specific mental representations is to engage in “deliberate practice.” When Ericsson and colleagues (1993) first described this form of practice they were trying to figure out what explains the differences in skill among top-level violinists. After interviewing the violinists, they found that the best predictor of individual performance was the amount of time they spent engaged in intense solo practice between lessons. The standard training for these violinists was to have a lesson with an expert instructor one to two times a week. During those lessons, their instructor would assign them practice activities designed with the student’s current abilities in mind and intended to push them to move just beyond their current skill level. It was these practice activities occurring between lessons — defined as “deliberate practice” — that predicted success. Since then, these findings have been replicated in nearly every kind of skill-based activity.

So if a Pro wants to help their student become an expert, they need to encourage them to engage in deliberate practice. Remember, the training that makes someone an expert takes place between coaching sessions. The primary purpose of the sessions you do with your students is to give your students feedback on their progress since the last session. As a Pro, your role is to provide them with feedback and an ever-evolving training strategy (i.e., the tasks to complete before the next lesson) that will enable them to engage in this form of practice on their own time.

In order for your students’ training between sessions to be effective enough to foster expert-level performance, their training needs to meet a few conditions:

  1. First, it needs to be designed and overseen by a coach who is themselves an expert-level player. This is one of the most consistent findings in this field of research. This is where you, the coach, come in.
  2. Second, when the student is training they must be pushing themselves outside their comfort zone. They need to be constantly trying things that are just beyond their current abilities. Since effective training demands near-maximal effort, it is generally not all that fun or enjoyable. It is helpful to remind students of this fact from time to time, especially if they are progressing slowly.
  3. Third, deliberate practice requires pursuing well-defined, specific goals. It is not enough to just aim at vague overall improvement. Instead, the student must be directed by their coach to improve some specific aspect of their performance. As their coach, you should be helping them make a series of small changes that will add up to the skill level they’re looking for. This is your primary contribution to your student’s success. The feedback you give during lessons is important, but mostly because it informs the goals your student will focus on until the next session.
  4. Fourth, deliberate practice is deliberate. The student must be devoting their full attention to their training. It isn’t enough for them to simply follow their coach’s instructions. They need to concentrate on the specific goal their coach has set for them. As you provide detailed assignments to your students at the end of each lesson, you should encourage students to focus specifically on those goals while practicing.
  5. Fifth, training should be iterative. At the end of each session, you need to come up with a training strategy that’s based on your current feedback. Early in the training process, almost all feedback comes from the coach, as they point out problems and offer ways to address them. Over time, if the student is to continue improving, they will need to learn to monitor themselves, spot mistakes, and adjust accordingly during their practice sessions. Your goal isn’t just to provide them with feedback and tasks to complete between sessions, it is also to get them to a point where they can recognize and fix their own mistakes.

Summary. If you want your student to reach expert-level performance, the science of expertise suggests the following:

  • Provide students with feedback on their progress during each session.
  • Use that feedback to provide a new set of tasks to focus on until your next session.
  • Encourage your students to push hard in their practice sessions, by
    • focusing on the game,
    • thinking about what they are doing and why, and
    • adjusting they are doing at each moment so it aligns with your advice.

The hallmark of deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do—that takes you out of your comfort zone—and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better. Much of what a good coach will do is to develop such exercises for you, designed specifically to help you improve the particular skill you are focused on at the moment. (Ericsson & Pool, 2016, p. 344).

Pros Are a Critical Component

💡 Deliberate Practice requires individualized feedback from experts.

It should be clear by now that in order to engage in deliberate practice, the student’s training needs to be overseen by a coach. However, it is important to understand why having a coach is so effective at improving performance.

A good coach is able to give the student feedback that they couldn’t get any other way. Effective feedback is about more than whether the student did something right or wrong. A good coach will also look at how their student ended up making that decision, as this gives them some insight into the mental representations the student was using to guide their performance. If needed, they will offer advice on how to think more effectively about the situation.

The problem with practicing without a coach is that the student has to rely upon their own mental representations to monitor their performance and determine what they might be doing wrong. This is not impossible, but it is much more difficult and significantly less efficient than having an experienced coach watching and providing feedback. It is particularly difficult for students to try to correct their own mistakes early in the learning process when their mental representations are still tentative and inaccurate.

Given the expense of private instruction, people will often try to make do with group lessons or even YouTube videos or books, and those approaches will generally work to some degree. But no matter how many times you watch a demonstration in class or on YouTube, you are still going to miss or misunderstand some subtleties—and sometimes some things that are not so subtle—and you are not going to be able to figure out the best ways to fix all of your weaknesses, even if you do spot them. (Ericsson & Pool, 2016, pp. 324–325).

Students Need the Right Mindset

💡 Deliberate practice is hard work for everyone, and the people who become top performers are those who work to maintain their training.

If your student is just getting started with deliberate practice, there is some practical advice that you can give them that will get them into the right mindset.

First: Focus and concentration are crucial. Having shorter training sessions with clearer goals is often the best way to develop new skills. It is better to train at 100% effort for less time than at 70% effort for a longer period. Once your student finds that they can no longer focus effectively, it is best to end the session because it’s no longer helping.

Second: It is essential that the student push themselves outside their comfort zone. Improvement only occurs from pushing one’s boundaries. So remind your students that if they find their mind wandering or if they are just feeling relaxed and having fun, they probably won’t get much improvement out of that bit of practice.

Reaching expert level in a game is neither fun nor casual. This reality might cause your students to feel discouraged. It can be helpful to reassure them that everyone feels that deliberate practice is hard work. It is tempting to think that the experts who practice the most intensely and frequently do so because they actually like difficult, demanding practice sessions and get some sort of pleasure out of them. But there is little evidence for that being the case.

In the studies by Ericsson and colleagues, none of the top performers enjoyed their intense practice sessions, not even the very best. The hours they had spent practicing alone were not fun. What distinguished the top performers was their superior ability to remain committed to attentive practicing despite the boredom and the pull of other, more appealing activities.

The Bottom Line

To the outsider, your role as a coach might appear to be playing games and having fun with your students. That is certainly a part of being a coach, but there is also much more to it if your goal is to turn average players into experts. Your own expertise puts you in a position to do just that, provided your feedback focuses on refining the way your students think about the game. Your presence as a coach is critical to your students’ growth because you know both what they need to learn and how they need to learn it. It takes expertise to build expertise.

Further Reading

  • Anders Ericsson, Ralf Krampe, & Clemens Tesch-Römer (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review 100 (3):363–406
  • Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool (2016). Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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