Beyond Theory: Making Room for Practice in Higher Education

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There’s a problem plaguing corporate learning and development leaders: to put it simply, they can’t get trainings to “stick” in employees’ brains, so they struggle to achieve significant returns on investments—not to mention increases in productivity and engagement.

In a recent article for Forbes, L&D expert Stephen Baer blamed that struggle on lack of opportunities to practice:

“One of the biggest mistakes is providing too much information that is irrelevant to performance, boring to students and wastes budget delivering content instead of facilitating the practice of skills.

“To achieve real ROI with every dollar spent, it’s most effective to start small and targeted, only spending dollars on skills practice. Practice is the MVP (minimally viable product) of great training. With future iterations, expand with supporting content that helps the learner overcome common mistakes.”

Here at Quantified, we are evangelists for practice. (In fact, we’ve studied it in depth, across a range of performance fields.)

We know that, no matter how much theory you know, how much you’ve studied, how much you’ve discussed…without practice, you’ll never achieve the execution you’re looking for.

Not everybody values practice the way we do, and for people who haven’t been “indoctrinated” like we have, the idea of spending precious time on something that can feel, frankly, a little silly, seems like a waste.

But the truth is, Baer’s right. No matter how much academic learning you’ve done, you can’t really internalize and hone new skills without plenty of practice. And we can’t help but wonder if the problems L&D leaders are facing might actually start years earlier, in their employees’ college classrooms.

There’s only so much time in a semester—so much room on a syllabus—and we wonder whether practicing new skills plays second fiddle to theory, research, and pedagogy (all of which are certainly important. We’d never dream of saying otherwise).

But wouldn’t hands-on practice time for students be just as beneficial once the profs have laid the groundwork?

Take public speaking, a common high school and college course, for example: I recently gave a mainstage TED Talk. I was surrounded by the best of the best public speakers. They lived and breathed stuff like this. But do you know what? They practiced like crazy. I made some rough calculations, and I rehearsed at least 100 hours. Even Al Gore was debating every word with his on-site communications team and refining his delivery right up to Go Time.

In our quest to understand the importance of practice, we spoke with country legend Ray Benson, who—even having released twenty albums and won several Grammys—couldn’t say enough about the importance of practice.

“I practice what I want to accomplish. When I’m having trouble playing something, or when I need to practice a certain style. For instance, I started doing finger picking, and I wanted to do more of that, so I spent every night sitting at home working on different finger picking pieces, or on the bus before the show.”

And the primary goal of individual practice, according to Benson, is repetition.

“It’s over and over, making sure that your muscle feels comfortable in doing this. It’s especially important for singing because there’s so much muscle memory. You hit the series of notes a certain way and they’re familiar and your diaphragm, your throat, your tongue, it all feels like you’ve been there before.”

What I’m getting at, here, is that if practice is so critical to success, maybe it’s worth emphasizing early on. If students learn the true value of practice for developing skills, they’ll take that principle to their workplaces and be sure to carve out time to practice the skills their organizations’ learning and development programs are trying to impart. Then, ROI will start to become clear.