Jane Birkenhead, February 5 2019

Study Effectively for TOEFL using Deliberate Practice

When you learn new skills, like improving your English for the TOEFL exam, it’s important to practice. I think most people know this!

To get a high score in the TOEFL exam (100+ or S26 and W24), you need to practice a lot to improve and get really good. Some students, however, believe that the quantity of practice time is more important than the quality of their practice. They spend hours doing the same things over and over again, without improving. Then, they get frustrated because their scores are stuck.

What if you could spend less time studying for TOEFL but do it in such a way that you improve? It’s possible with the right technique.

An article, posted in the BBC’s WorkLife series, describes a technique called deliberate practice. It explains how deliberate practice can actually reduce the amount of time you need to spend practicing a skill.

What is deliberate practice?

Professor Anders Ericsson of Florida State University explains.

"Sixty minutes spent doing ‘the right thing’ is better than any amount of time spent learning in an unfocussed way. Identifying areas that need work, then devising a purposeful plan to correct them is crucial. This process is called deliberate practice".

So this means that you should work out what your weaknesses are, then make a plan to improve them. You should be focused on your final goal. And you shouldn’t practice without focus or direction. How you practice is more important than how much time you spend practicing.

It sounds really sensible doesn’t it? This is exactly the principle I follow with my students in their TOEFL lessons. I identify their weaknesses and then work out how to improve them.

How can you make deliberate practice work for you in TOEFL studying?

Let’s look at how we can apply deliberate practice to one area of the TOEFL exam – the speaking section. Perhaps you've identified that you keep missing the final /s/ sound on verbs. This is a very common error for many language groups. 

First, we should consider what unfocussed practice looks like for this language error.

Unfocussed practice -> You practice a lot of different speaking questions, one after the other. You do as many as you can and you don’t review them or listen to your recordings. You don’t redo any and you get frustrated because you run out of practice questions.

If this is how you practice, then you should stop now. It’s not helping you at all.

Deliberate practice is practicing in a more focused way with a specific task and a final goal in mind. In this case, correcting the final /s/ sound.

Deliberate practice -> You practice just one speaking question. You record your response to it. Then you listen to your response to see if you can identify any places where you’ve missed an /s/ sound. Perhaps you write a transcript to be sure. 

Then you repeat the same response, concentrating on final /s/ sounds. You listen to your response again and see if you’ve missed any. If you’re still making the error, then maybe you repeat the response a third time. Perhaps you’ll count your errors from your first response, and compare them to the third response, to track your improvement.

Maybe you will practice just one or two speaking questions. And perhaps you’ll practice for 30 minutes rather than two hours. But the point is that your practice will be much more effective. You’ll be able to demonstrate improvement.

As professor Ericsson explains, 

“It’s not about the total time spent practicing. It needs to be matched with the commitment of the student. Are they correcting? Are they changing what they do? It’s not clear why some people think that making more of the same mistakes will make you better.”

So how you practice becomes much more important than how much time you spend practicing.

The table below shows the five tips from the BBC article and then my version of it for TOEFL students. But - read the article. It’s good reading practice, it’s interesting and it will change the way you study for TOEFL!

Written by

Jane Birkenhead

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