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The Five Stages of Deliberate Practice

In this post, we continue with our analysis of Craig Barton’s book, How I Wish I’d Taught Maths about evidence-based education. Today we will discuss the chapter about deliberate practice and the five stages that should be followed in order to teach a complex process.

When we introduce a complex process, it is necessary to divide it into more simple subprocesses.

Addressing the process as a whole could lead to cognitive overload. Furthermore, dividing the process helps us isolate the nature of the difficulties that students face.

How can we do this? To answer this question, Barton was inspired by Ericsson’s work and called these stages, the five stages of deliberate practice.

The Five Stages of Deliberate Practice

First stage: Isolate the skill

Let’s suppose we want to teach the addition of fractions.

The first thing that we should do is think about the subprocesses involved. For example, the process of adding two fractions can be broken down the following way:

  1. Decide if the fractions can be added directly.
  2. Decide on an appropriate common denominator.
  3. Use prior knowledge about equivalent fractions to transform them.
  4. Complete the addition.
  5. Simplify the answer.

Second Stage: Develop the Skill 

In order to develop individual skills, we need to review what we have learned in previous chapters: worked examples and intelligent practice.

Barton starts writing pairs of fractions on the board and asking whether or not they can be added directly.

deliberate practice

Then, he presents a series of simple questions for the students to solve.

If they take longer than a few minutes to complete the activity it is because they have confused some steps – it is better to address this earlier rather than later.

Third Stage: Assess the Skill

The goal of this stage is to identify the incorrect ideas that students have and see if they have acquired the necessary prerequisites to move forward.

Barton’s favorite exercises to evaluate these skills are multiple choice questions.

deliberate practice

Fourth Stage: The Final Performance

Now that the subprocesses are isolated, developed and assessed, it’s time to teach the overall process. A good way to do this is with the supercharged examples explained in earlier chapters.

According to Barton, at this stage of the process, it is important to note that it is better to avoid contextualized questions. Barton tends to hold off on these types of questions until students have mastered the whole process of adding fractions.

Fifth stage: Retrieval Practice

A satisfactory performance in the evaluation stage is not a reliable indication that learning has actually occurred. It is still necessary to review.

This stage serves two functions: re-evaluating the understanding of the process and improving the storage capacity of that knowledge in long term memory.

At Smartick we are well aware of the benefits demonstrated by Spacing and Interleaving research. As a method that tries to base all its proposals on research results, we have incorporated interleaving into our daily sessions.


  • Barton, Craig. 2018. How I Wish I’d Taught Maths : Lessons Learned from Research, Conversations with Experts, and 12 Years of Mistakes. Melton, Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
  • Ericsson, K.A., R.T. Krampe, and C. Tesch-Romer. 1993. “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.” Psychological Review 100 (3): 363–406.
  • Hin-Tai. 2017. “Is This the Best We Can Do? Part 7: The Spacing Effect.” Mathagogy Blog (blog). 2017. Available here.

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Diane Ackerman
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