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Don't Try This At Home... Yet
By: Sandra Miller, PhD

As a leadership trainer, I have told hundreds of classroom participants “To get the most benefit from this class, take what you just learned and start using it on the job.”  But now, I tell them exactly the opposite – “Do not try to use what you just learned”.  What could cause such a reversal of opinion? 

In the last 10 years, research on the neuroscience of learning and the acquisition of high-level expertise has produced an explosion of understanding about what it takes to quickly build skills and reach the highest levels of performance -- and, why most of us never come close to achieving the potential that is easily within our grasp. 

We have learned that all expertise -- from baseball to brain surgery – comes from physical changes in the structure and functions of the brain.  Every action we take, idea we have, or memory we make creates a new neural pathway or reinforces a current path or connection.  The bottom line is that improving your performance requires changing your brain.  So how do you change your brain?  Basically, learning occurs in three stages that I call -- Facts, Skills, and Wisdom.  Each stage requires a different and specific approach to building capability.  When you match your development activities to your stage of learning, learning is faster and produces larger performance improvements.

The first stage, facts, is simply gaining knowledge about an activity or competency you want to master.   Let’s say you want to be a better coach. What are the techniques?  What skills does it take?  How do you know if you are doing it correctly?  At this first stage of learning, classroom training, reading, webinars, etc. are the most helpful development activities. 

The second stage, building the fundamental skills it takes to perform, requires deliberate practice.  Deliberate practice is an intentionally designed drill that includes three things 1) a small, concrete, segment of performance; 2) deep concentration; and 3) correction of mistakes.  During deliberate practice you focus on practicing just one small part of a skill, pay close attention to what you are doing, make small adjustments, and repeat the practice drill until you can execute flawlessly and effortlessly.   

The final stage of learning, wisdom, is about developing the nuances and the instincts it takes to perform at a very high level.  Wisdom is best developed by using a skill set or competency in real situations.   This is where experience can be a good teacher.  If the fundamental skills have been thoroughly practiced in stage two, then using the skills on the job will build the brain structures that lead to effortless and highly expert performance.   

When we tell people to go directly from classroom training to using a new skill on the job we are skipping an entire stage of learning.  There are several reasons why practicing a skill needs to be separated from using a skill.  First, to practice you must go slow and focus on executing the skill perfectly or you will be wiring your brain to perform incorrectly.  You can’t go slow or back up and redo in real situations.  Second, deliberate practice requires repeating practice drills until you can perform each small segment perfectly.  There is not enough time in classes to fully practice and using a skill only when real situations call for it does not provide enough repetition.   Third, when you are learning something new, your performance will be slow, awkward and clumsy.  This is not the time to use that fledging skill in a situation where performance counts. 

Separating practice from performance doesn't mean that you can't practice as part of your regular job duties.  For example, being good at giving feedback requires that you construct the feedback script according to a specific set of rules.   You may know this as the STAR model – where you describe the Situation, Task, Action, and Result of performance.  You can repeatedly practice constructing scripts without actually giving the feedback to anyone.  Doing this will build your skills in observing and describing performance. 

There is a world of difference between knowing what to do and actually being able to do it.  When we tell participants to go directly from the classroom to using a skill on the job, we are skipping a critical stage of learning.  Skipping this step diminishes the benefit from classroom learning and limits your ability to achieve your full potential.  As classroom trainers, we have the perfect opportunity to tell people about the three stages of learning and show them how they can practice the skills.  

I use the exercises in workshops to teach participants how they can incorporate deliberate practice drills into their work. I also have participants take notes during the class in four different categories: 

  1. Aha and insights,  light bulb moments or things they learned about themselves
  2. Facts or knowledge that they want or need to remember
  3. Skills that they want to develop and will need to practice
  4. Habits or behaviors that they want to improve or change

At the end of the class, these notes are used to create follow-up plans.   We prioritize development actions with the ‘insights and ahas’.  What is it that they really want to take from this class and turn into improved performance on the job?  We create a plan to memorize the facts.  Unfortunately, without a concerted effort to memorize key points, over 90% of what they heard will be forgotten in a matter of days or weeks. I give them suggestions and tools that they can use for deliberate practice drills and have them create schedules for practicing.  And finally, they choose possible situations or experiences where they can use the skills and turn what they learned into wisdom, new habits, and improved job performance.  Believe it or not, you can dramatically improve the impact of classroom training by telling people – Don’t try this at home… yet. 

By: Sandra J Miller, PhD.  Dr. Miller is the developer of The Prodigy Method, a new approach to learning based on research from the neuroscience of learning, the acquisition of expertise, motivation in learning, and leadership development.    She has over 30 years’ experience translating the empirical evidence on leadership development into practical advice for practicing managers and organizational leaders.  Learn more at or contact Dr. Miller at (423) 265-8700 or

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