Expertise expert offers 8 tips for learning a new skill

If you want to master a musical instrument, sport or software program, follow this advice from School of Education’s Jeffrey Greene.

A person playing guitar

The new year is, for many, a time for self-improvement. If you set out to learn a new skill, the key is a diligent, deliberate approach, not the 10,000 hours you may have heard about.

Practice time is important, said Jeffrey A. Greene, McMichael Family Professor in the School of Education, but it’s only one of several factors that will help you succeed.

Jeffrey A. Greene

Jeffrey A. Greene.

This semester, Greene is teaching a course on the art and science of expertise with Anson Dorrance, UNC head women’s soccer coach and Erianne Weight, professor of sport administration in the College of Arts and Sciences’ exercise and sport science department. The 331 students will learn about skill development in class and then put those ideas into practice by taking on a new skill like solving a Rubik’s Cube or learning to play pickleball.

Basing his advice on the deliberate practice model developed by the late cognitive psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, author of “The Making of an Expert,” here’s what Greene recommends:

1. Find a guide

People need explicit directions to begin. When learning a new skill, look for a source that breaks down the steps, whether it’s a book, online guide or instructor.

2. Set up a distraction-free environment

“Research shows that it’s a lot easier to set up a context where distractions won’t happen than it is to resist distractions when they happen,” Greene said. Find a place and time for focusing. Put your phone on mute and stick it in another room, for starters.

3. Build endurance

Practice multiple days each week, starting with a few minutes of focused practice and building to more time. “Beginners usually spend only 15 to 30 minutes practicing because it’s tiring,” Greene said. “As you improve, practice time can increase. Even experts generally can’t practice more than four or five hours a day. It’s just too tiring.”

4. Practice deliberately

Be intentional and mindful while practicing. Begin with a basic part of the skill. “In pickleball, it might be your swing. Practice the swing and consciously pay attention to it. With time, as you improve, your practice time can increase.”

Paying attention can also improve automated skills, like brushing your teeth or typing. “De-automatize it. Concentrate, slow down and focus,” Greene said. “That can make you better even at things that you’ve gotten pretty good at and plateaued on.”

5. Find motivation

Look within yourself, but it’s also helpful if someone or something else motivates you. “A lot of people think that intrinsic motivation is good and extrinsic motivation is bad,” Greene said. “That’s not true. If you love doing something, that’s awesome. Keep doing it. But nobody is intrinsically motivated for everything.”

Extrinsic motivation helps with many things we need to do or want to do. “It’s okay to do something because you want to obtain a goal or get something of value,” Greene said. For instance, you may want to learn a new skill so that you can get a better job. “That kind of motivation is fine as long as you feel like you’re in charge and it’s your choice to do it. Where extrinsic motivation gets bad is when it’s coercive or manipulative.”

6. Get feedback

You will benefit from the perspective of a coach or partner, which can enhance your learning. That outside assessment, even if it’s not expert, can give you insight on your progress.

Feedback on more than your performance is also important. “It needs to feed forward,” Greene said. “A coach should ask questions like, ‘Given what you’ve done so far, what’s the next goal? What’s the next step? What’s the next level that you need to get to and how can I help you get there?’”

Some technologies provide feedback, like when you’re learning to write code. “A computer will give you feedback because if the code is wrong, it’s not going to work,” Greene said.

7. Get the right kind of feedback

Be sure that your coach’s assessments of your progress make you feel like:

  • You are in control and can make good choices about how you practice.
  • You have sufficient competence. “You need to hear, ‘I know you can do it. You’re going to get there. Keep working on it.’”
  • The person cares about your performance. “You need to know your coach is here to help you and wants you to do well.”

Those three things will strengthen intrinsic motivation and complement extrinsic motivation, according to Greene.

8. Be your own coach

Notice your improvements and think about what brought them about. “Write those things down or remember them and internalize the skills and your confidence,” Greene said. “Become your own coach in a way and make yourself better at it. Most people benefit from coaching no matter how advanced they are. But you can do a lot of that work yourself.”

Lastly, Greene said: “Have fun.”