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Rethinking your CPD: Does practice make perfect?


John Castledine, Head of Learning Development and Design for NIHR, explains that putting in the hours to learn a new skill is only part of the story, it’s all about the right sort of practice. His blog is part of the NIHR's Rethinking your Continuing Professional Development series.

It is a proverb that is familiar to most of us: ‘Practice makes perfect’. But is it really this simple? 

Expertise is unlikely to be created by practice alone. Genes, mindset and opportunity can be important. Moreover, research suggests that practice is not simply about putting in the hours.  Quantity is only part of the story. Arguably, when the right sort of practice takes place over sufficient time then this leads to improvement.

So what is ‘the right sort of practice’? 

High quality practice is deliberate and targeted at well-defined goals. It typically involves breaking down the skill into a series of specific activities. Each activity can then be refined through repetition. It is also important to practice the skills at increasingly challenging levels of difficulty. This gives the practice purpose. The final essential ingredient is to add guidance and expert coaching.  This is likely to come from a teacher or mentor; or in the workplace from a line manager.

In rethinking our own Continuing Professional Development (CPD), how can we use these insights? 

I’d suggest taking the time to break down the task or skill you are looking to improve into a series of specific activities. For example, consider the various components of delivering a successful presentation.  This could include creating appropriate visuals aids, conveying complex information jargon fee, engaging the audience, responding to questions and so on.

  • Which of these activities do you want to focus upon improving? 
  • What practice activities will take you beyond your comfort zone? 
  • Which colleagues can help provide guidance and expert coaching? 

This all sounds great in theory but placing ourselves outside our comfort zone and asking for constructive criticism from colleagues does not make for an easy day in the office. Put simply, deliberate practice is unlikely to be inherently motivating.

To overcome this we need to have a passion to improve our skills. To sustain us through practice sessions we must be able to keep in mind the rewards our future expertise will bring. Hence, we need to spend time to identify the prize that will reward our efforts before we deconstruct our desired skills into practice activities.

As adult learners our motivation is most likely to be internally driven, rather than influenced by external competition for grades etc. So I’d suggest asking yourself:

  • How will I feel when I am confident that I perform this skill very well?
  • How will I feel if I demonstrate this skill to the very best of my ability? 

The answers to these questions will clarify whether developing the skill is something that excites you. If it is, then resolving to practice it deliberately will help you achieve much more in your CPD.  

To explore this topic further, I’d recommend this animated summary based on the book Peak.

John Castledine, Head of Learning Development and Design, National Institute for Health Research 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the NIHR, NHS or the Department of Health and Social Care.