Drill Practice: Breaking Through Learning Obstacles

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Are you trying to learn a new skill but having trouble with one aspect of it? How do you construct a productive drill? What challenges come with drill practice?

Drill practice is when you isolate a single aspect of a skill and concentrate intensively on it. The purpose of drill practice is to maximize overall improvement and minimize overall effort. Done properly, drill practice will speed up the process of achieving the whole skill, not just one isolated aspect.

Continue on to learn more about drill practice.

What Is Drill Practice?

Sometimes when we begin to learn a new skill, we have difficulty with isolated aspects of it. Drilling is isolating weaknesses in your learning process or skill level and concentrating intensively on them. Drill practices work because according to research, when you have difficulty with certain isolated components of a skill, struggling with those components slows down the process of achieving integrated proficiency for the whole skill. 

Similarly, using drills to improve one aspect of a skill has a positive chain effect on the quality of the overall skill. For example, when learning a language, vocabulary is one cognitive component, pronunciation is another, and grammar is yet another. All three components are used in the overall skill, but each serves its own cognitive function.

The Benefits of Mindful Drilling

Some people think drilling is the wrong approach because they are used to the formal-education monotony of cramming before a test, or assignments based entirely on memorization. These types of tasks are exhausting because there is no deeper understanding of the purpose behind them or what role they play in the integrated learning process. When you drill with a specific purpose in mind, drilling has many benefits.

The purpose of drill practice is to unblock areas of learning preventing overall proficiency by getting you into the habit of breaking down what isn’t working into manageable chunks. They also teach you discipline because they require you to work through frustration and ask you to confront your weaknesses instead of relying on your strengths. 

Further, drills are valuable even if you can’t identify a single aspect negatively impacting proficiency. The reason for this is that your ability to focus, memorize, and concentrate energy are generally “spread out” when accomplishing a complicated task. As a result, you may get boxed in by the desire to focus on a single weak aspect, and end up mastering it at the expense of overall proficiency. The value of drills is that they allow you to break complex tasks down into multiple aspects that you can drill at the same time and easily reintegrate after intensive improvement. 

For example, let’s say you’re learning how to pitch a baseball. With pitching, the key aspects are speed and precision. You might construct a drill where you throw a ball at a target with as much force as possible. The drill is throwing the ball at the target, but you’re practicing both speed and precision, which improves overall performance, as these aspects impact all defensive gameplay. 

The Challenges of Drilling

The principle of drilling and the principle of directness may seem to conflict with one another. Directness requires you to practice a fully integrated skill or engage a topic in an environment that most closely replicates the real experience. Drills break down a skill or topic so that you are intensively practicing one aspect of the overall learning goal. However, they only seem to conflict, because in reality, they are different, but equally important steps in the learning process. Ultralearners cycle between the principle of directness and the principle of drilling in a “direct-drill-direct” process:

  • Direct: Practice your skill in the direct context you want to apply it in.
  • Drill: Identify aspects of the skill that are critical steps, or weak links in the process, and use drills to improve those isolated aspects. 
  • Direct: Integrate improved isolated skills by completing direct practice again, utilizing all aspects of the skill. This step allows you to properly transfer what you improved while practicing in isolation, and determine if your drill method helped you to achieve the improvement you wanted. 

If you find that the drill practice used does not correctly isolate the aspect needing improvement, you may need several rounds of different drills. Rather than wasted time, this is valuable feedback because you’re streamlining the learning process. 

Drilling has a few additional challenges.

Challenge #1: Determining What to Drill

The purpose of drilling is to maximize overall improvement and minimize overall effort. If you have multiple aspects that need improvement, create drills to test each of them with the direct-drill-direct approach until you identify which aspect contributes most to the overall skill. 

For example, let’s say you’re learning how to play soccer and you want to improve your speed. What do you drill? Running sprints is a way to practice speed in isolation, and for direct practice, you might play practice games, which allow you to see if your sprinting drills have transferred to your overall athletic performance. 

Challenge #2: Constructing a Productive Drill

Sometimes you’re not able to identify how best to improve a component in isolation and have that improvement translate to the overall task. This occurs most often when isolating an aspect reduces or removes the variable causing difficulty (in other words, you might find that the way you replicated it doesn’t translate once it’s re-integrated). For example, if you’re learning how to kick a soccer goal but the only drills you run are with you and an empty net, you’ll find your skills faltering when you add in the components of a live soccer game (like a goalie).

Challenge #3: Overcoming Difficulty and Discomfort

It’s uncomfortable to isolate what is most challenging and relentlessly concentrate on it. Most people would rather focus on what they are already doing well. Here are some approaches to drills that will help you confront this pitfall:

Approach #1: Segmentation 

Isolate a time segment of a task. For example, if you’re a singer struggling to memorize a section of a song, sing that section of the music over and over again until you get it perfect, then add it back into the rest of the song (this is also an example of the direct-drill-direct structure). The segment should be short enough that you can practice it easily. If it’s longer, try breaking it down into two segments. 

Approach #2: Replication

For skills that are creative, isolating one aspect without incorporating the others can be extra challenging. To counteract, replicate the aspects of the skill you don’t need to focus on from another source, so you can devote all your attention to the aspect you do need to focus on. For example, if you’re learning to sing and play a song on an instrument at the same time, create isolated recordings of the vocals and instrumentals and while you’re drilling vocals, use the instrumental recording to accompany yourself, then use the vocal recording while you’re drilling the instrumental component. 

Approach #3: Concentration 

Focus for longer periods of time on a singular aspect of the skill more so than you would normally.  It’s best for situations where you’re building a skill from scratch and are not able to isolate any components. For example, let’s say you want to improve your research skills. You might spend the bulk of your work time researching. Though there is more time invested upfront with this method, the long-term benefit is that you build new patterns and enhance existing skills.

Approach #4: Chaining

Chaining is doing drills for skills you know you need improvement on. Shoot for higher than your proficiency level, or choose a skill you know you’ll fail at initially. When you fail, work backward and master each element of the process. For example, say you’re learning a song on the piano and practicing a segment of music that is played very quickly. You know which keys you need to play but can’t do so at speed. Make note of the sections you have the most difficulty with and try playing those sections at speed regardless of whether or not you hit the correct keys. Practice until you can play at speed without mistakes. You may feel overwhelmed initially, but the time invested will pay off because deliberately confronting your weaknesses supports deeper learning. 

Drill Practice: Breaking Through Learning Obstacles

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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