There is no shortage of information, movies, and opinions about student achievement. Some talk about how to compete in a global economy. Others talk about the increased use of strategies such as cheating or using drugs like Adderall to improve performance. Still others talk about how to promote achievement in a healthy way. Recently, I read an article summarizing a study referred to as “The Berlin Study”. During the 1990’s, psychologists from the Universität der Künste examined violinists to determine who the highest achievers were and why. Fascinated by the findings, I read the article, “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance” that was published in the Psychological Review.
They came up with some very interesting findings. I think these findings are applicable to how we help our teens perform to the best of their ability.
One of the biggest findings challenged the idea that some are innately smart or talented in a certain area. Now, this is not to say that some teens are not more inclined to like athletics, music, or academics. However, they noted that to be truly gifted at something required practice and dedication. Often times, those that were considered “elite” had been engaged in the activity for at least 10 years. This is consistent with more recent reports that doing well in school has more to do with effort than it does natural ability or intelligence.
The larger group of musicians was divided into “elite” and “average” players. From this they gained some interesting insight on what separated the two groups.
- They practiced the same amount of hours. The difference was in how they spent their time. The elite group spent an average of 3 1/2 hours per day on what they called deliberate practice. This meant that they did uncomfortable, methodical work that stretched their abilities.
- The elite group also practiced in large chunks of time – once in the morning and once in the evening. The average players spread their work throughout the day.
- The elite group was significantly more relaxed, less stressed, more rested, and engaged in more leisure activities.
This is not to say that there are not individual differences in a person’s ability to multi-task or manage stress. However, there are some interesting implications for how we teach our teens to study and build skills.
Let’s look at what all of this means. First, doing work that pushes you may not be fun at the time, but it provides for a bigger increase in skill. So, the same work is easier the next time. Seeing improvement leads to increased satisfaction and motivation to keep working. For our teens, this means being persistent, even in the face of challenge.
It also seems as though doing something for larger blocks of time allowed the students to get into a groove. You could say that their brain fired faster or they were in a “flow”. In short, the work they were doing was more effective than work that was constantly interrupted. When work was spaced throughout the day, the students wasted some of their time getting back into the activity. For our teens this means that distraction and interruption can be a huge barrier to being an effective student. Changing music, checking Facebook accounts, or texting friends may mean (1) taking longer to complete the work and (2) getting less out of it in the end.
Finally, spreading work throughout the day can leave a person in a constant state of busyness, stress, and exhaustion. This results in our teens thinking about what needs to be done when they should be sleeping, or even while they are working on something else. They may not have as much time for leisure activities because they are worried about having time to get everything done. This means that our teens could benefit from separating their school work, activities, time with friends, and time for television, games, or social media into distinct blocks of time throughout the day.
While we are talking about these strategies as they apply to our teens, you may find that they work for you as well!