Purposeful practice: the importance of feedback in training

The expression “practice makes perfect” depends on the value of that practice. Tom Arnett, Research Fellow at the Christensen Institute, argues that good practice must be feedback-informed. In an exclusive interview, Tom dives into “purposeful practice” and gives an example of a program that’s doing it right.

The following excerpt has been edited for the purposes of length and clarity. You can hear the full interview here.


A big piece of practice is that practice isn’t just doing the same thing over and over again and expecting that you’ll get better because you just keep doing it.

Purposeful practice isn’t just doing something over and over again. It’s doing it and seeing what worked and what didn’t work– ideally, with the help of a coach who can help you see what is good practice and what is not good practice. It’s getting that feedback and trying again and continuing to… adjust and iterate to improve.

I think that’s the key: feedback informed practice and a constant effort to figure out ‘How do I improve? How do I overcome the challenges to what I’m trying to implement?’

There are a couple examples that I think are really valuable: one is the The Match Charter School in Boston with their Match Teacher Residency for new undergrads who sign up to be tutors at their campuses. In part of their training, they do something called Groups of Six, where they have students role play.

They’ll have five prospective teachers who are pretending to be students in a classroom and one teacher who has prepared a lesson and delivers that lesson. The colleagues of that student teacher are maybe acting out or demonstrating common misperceptions students have, and teachers in real time try to address that.

They go through one of these rounds and then at the end the coach gives them feedback on what went well in the lesson and what they could’ve done better on. They really try to focus it on one specific thing, so it’s not a laundry list of all the boxes you checked or didn’t check in terms of quality and effective practice. Rather, they give teachers one tangible thing to focus on. Then the next week they come back and do the same thing again. And they continue to focus on honing that particular skill.

Tom Arnett is a Research Fellow at the Christensen Institute.  Tom’s research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended learning environments and other innovative educational models. Tom previously worked as an Education Pioneers Fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, where he designed and piloted a blended-learning summer school program. He also taught middle school math and experimented with blended-learning models as a Teach For America corps member in the Kansas City Missouri School District. Thomas received a bachelors of science in Economics from Brigham Young University, and then went on to earn an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was a William G. McGowan Fellow.

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