Pretty girl smiling while taking part in interesting discussion
ATD Blog

Just How Much Practice Do Complex Skills Need?

Monday, January 13, 2020

The question I use to identify a skill (versus a knowledge issue or a procedural problem) is:

Is it reasonable to think someone can be proficient without practice?

So, for example, would it be realistic to think someone could be proficient at basketball without practice?

If the answer is “no,” then you know you are dealing with a skill, and (by definition) it means you will have to think about how you will design and structure your practice.

You need to decide how much practice is needed, and what kind of practice is required. A few questions you can ask yourself include:

  • How variable is the outcome of the skill?
  • How quickly do people need to access the skill?
  • How long did your subject matter experts take to develop their skills?

Let’s look at each question and the implications for instructional design.


How Variable Is the Outcome of the Skill?

For example, there is more variability in website design than there is in measuring blood pressure. If you gave several skilled web designers a web design assignment, they may make different websites that all may be good options, but medical personnel taking blood pressure shouldn’t have wildly divergent results.

The implication for design is that you need a much larger number of case examples for teaching skills with highly variable outcomes. A single-case example probably won’t be sufficient to help learners understand all the options.

How Quickly Do People Need to Access the Skills?

For example, people need to access the skill of performing CPR much more quickly than the skill of making coffee (in most cases). The implications for learning include practicing for accuracy and speed. For example, learners can practice until they have a high rate of accuracy then practice for speed.


How Long Did Your Subject Matter Experts Take to Develop Their Skills?

Often, subject matter experts or stakeholders have lost track of how long it took them to develop a skill. For instance, most skilled managers aren’t paying attention to how long it took them to really get good at giving feedback to their direct reports.

The implication for learning is that it’s often not realistic to expect skills to be gained in a fraction of the time that it took your SME to acquire them. If your SME took two years to get good at something, you may be able to condense that time somewhat, but you aren’t going to train new learners in a week. Asking this question can help you set more realistic expectations for stakeholders and allow you to plan an intervention that unfolds over a more gradual timeframe.

If I apply this question to a skill like giving performance reviews, I would see that there is potentially a significant amount of variability in performance reviews, but it does not require immediate access. The length of time for developing proficiency is probably high, but that may be due to infrequent use. Therefore, I would look at creating a program with several examples, but no speed practice requirement. I would also look at how I could support managers (through mentoring or coaching) through the first five to seven performance reviews so their on-the-job practice could also improve their skills.

About the Author

Julie Dirksen is an independent consultant and instructional designer who has more than 15 years’ experience creating highly interactive e-Learning experiences for clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to innovative technology start-ups to major grant-funded research initiatives. Her focus has been on utilizing the disciplines of educational psychology, neuroscience, change management and persuasive technology to promote and support the improvement of peoples’ lives through sustainable long-term learning and behavioral change.

Dirksen holds an M.S. degree in instructional systems technology from Indiana University. She has also been an adjunct faculty member at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where she taught courses in project management, instructional design, and cognitive psychology.

She recently published Design For How People Learn, in which she gets ridiculously excited about everything from learning applications of behavioral economics to the way glucose is regulated in the brain. She’s happiest whenever she gets to learn something new. You can find her online at

1 Comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
All great points, Julie. Thanks for sharing!
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.