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I am lucky to have worked with an extensive range of STEM and Education courses and helped train a wide variety of educators at the college level.
Throughout those conversations, one constant is that every class has core skills and abilities that feel under-practiced.
After scouring literature and stealing tips from excellent instructors, one of the most effective ways I’ve found to scaffold effective practice is described below.
The “lab meeting” method leverages evidence-based techniques to provide opportunities for practicing critical skills in a low-stakes but high-impact format.
The method is broadly applicable to a range of courses, is relatively simple for students to understand, and densely applies the core ideals of deliberate practice to a classroom setting. I hope this is useful for you!
🏅 To give students a lifelike opportunity to practice whatever skills you feel are the core learning objectives for your class
💡 To provide repeatable, meaningful practice opportunities for students to perform what they are learning
🧠 To improve students’ skills in critical thinking, insightful questioning, and public speaking, regardless of the field
What is Deliberate Practice?
Deliberate practice is a collective term for the four critical elements of a learning environment that are required for a learner to excel in a challenging pursuit.
These elements may not be necessary for rote memorization of facts but are needed for complex human roles that our students will turn into careers.
The lab meeting technique uses these principles in an efficient structure so that students at any skill level can progress.
Deliberate practice requires:
🔵 Time to practice. There is no substitute for the accrual of meaningful hours spent in the pursuit of skill-building. Collecting facts often consumes much of the in-class time. Deliberate practice intentionally converts classroom time into practice time, during which students will perform skills and observe their peers doing the same.
🔵 Rapid, specific feedback. Hours of effort do not promote efficient learning unless the learner is directed to incrementally better performance. In most classrooms, feedback arrives days or even weeks after assignments are submitted.
This feedback cycle can quicken and prevent wasted effort by converting some class time to practice time. More importantly, a community of feedback givers can provide denser and more explicitly individual feedback (often on a real-time basis).
As a bonus, students observing a particular performance ALSO receive feedback as they compare their judgments with the feedback given.
🔵 Challenging abilities. Learners develop most when they are challenged appropriately to their abilities.
Within the lab meeting arena, questioning peers and instructors will naturally tend to push students in areas closer to the leading edge of their abilities compared to feedback given class-wide.
A low-stakes environment that is explicitly unequal and student-centered is sometimes better for overall learning.
🔵 Positive feedback. Giving positive feedback is crucial for motivating a learner to continue through the difficulty of practice. The lab meeting method allows for low-stakes, community-based positive feedback ranging from facial expressions to metacognitive growth to microstatements to public praise. These are often more important than the positive feedback we associate with high grades.
Jot down 3 skills that are core learning objectives for your class.
Implementing Deliberate Practice
1. Explicitly name the mixture of complex, meaningful skills in the class. Even if it should be obvious, it is important for the instructor to name the values of the field and to make clear that they are complex skills to be learned instead of simple facts to be retained. Also, crucially, use this opportunity to remind students that they will not be graded on their presentation—only on their participation as a presenter and audience member.
An English professor may state that “Persuasive writing requires correct use of grammar, syntax and vocabulary”—but this is only the start of the talent.
To truly convince a reader, higher-level writing skills like creating emotional connection and designing an organized argument can lead to an overall impact that cannot be simplified to an algorithm.
2. Inform students of an upcoming opportunity for practice. A syllabus or class announcement might be something like:
“In class next Tuesday, we will step away from learning new information and have a practice session around the skills we are trying to demonstrate with Assignment X. Plan on bringing your work to share with your peers. You will have # minutes to share anything about the work that you want, and we will ask questions and give feedback. The goal is to help you improve your [insert skill] before you turn it in.”
3. Give a reminder about the upcoming session. This is a good time to answer the common student uncertainty about exactly what they can present during their time. For example, an engineering professor might tell students that they can bring a new idea, a problem, or a calculation they are having trouble with.
4. Open the lab meeting session. Remind students of the overall goals, the low-stakes grading, and the need for a positive and encouraging community. It is best not to list norms and rules at this point; this can tend to stifle conversation if peers are worried about violating rules instead of creatively engaging with the performing student. Choose a student at random to begin. Expert instructors sometimes post an order of presentations prior to the session so that students can work to manage anxiety instead of being cold-called.
Share your own work to set the tone
Some instructors find it beneficial to put themselves in the shoes of the students and model the presentation using some part of their own work. This is a great way to model the openness and universality of feedback.
5. Praise for student efforts can often be most authentic when it is short and heartfelt. Longer compliments or anything seen by students as insincere is less valuable. When students get meaningful feedback from their peers, it can be a powerful message for community-building and motivational for the next iteration of class work.
6. Make time to reflect after presentations. Low-stakes reflections are often very useful, both as instructor feedback and student metacognition. This can be as low-tech as asking students to write one thing they learned from their feedback on an unsigned piece of paper to hand in. Besides helping you to know what students valued, it will help to cement actionable next steps taken from their feedback.
Signs of Success
You will know a lab meeting has been successful when:
- Subsequent assigned work quality improves.
- Students are more likely to collaborate on studying or practicing for your class.
- Student reflections indicate some decrease in fear and apprehension of public performances.
- You as the teacher learn something about the process of learning that your students are undertaking.
Getting Student Feedback
The lab meeting technique is, at its core, the creation of a space for student feedback.
Best results will be found when the instructor takes a light touch and doesn’t feel the need to dominate the feedback-giving.
In moments where peers are reluctant to give feedback, instructors can catalyze the process by:
- Asking the audience to jot down a question that they would want answered if they were in the presenter’s shoes. This can instill a bit of empathy to the proceedings and tends to catalyze the first useful question or comment.
- Asking all audience members to turn to a partner and discuss for 30-60 seconds. Just like with in-class questioning, this think-pair-share model often stokes the ability to do the “share” part.
Identify moments in your class where you can encourage student feedback.
For those of you who have already used similar methods to create practice opportunities, you may feel that this method could be summed up in a single sentence: Turn class time into informal presentations for feedback.
And that is absolutely correct! I hope that some of the advice, language, or specific items in this description help you apply this method more smoothly or to a new environment.
We have been extremely happy to see these evidence-based strategies implemented in a wide range of courses. The result is that more and more of our increasingly diverse students get a chance to learn the unwritten rules of the field while they practice skills that might be completely new to them. This is just one small part of the overall move towards a more inclusive and educated population.
Download the Ebook
- A deep-dive into deliberate practice and what it means for students.
- A step-by-step guide on how to implement deliberate practice in your classroom.
- Strategies to receive student feedback.
- The original paper by Anders Ericcson et al on Deliberate Practice
- A strong interpretation of Ericcson’s work that gives a different viewpoint
- A collection of scholarly articles around deliberate practice
- Three sources for thoughts on creating classroom culture by establishing norms:
- Thoughts on facilitating presentations in class, with good links at the bottom
- More thoughts on classroom facilitation