When learning a new subject or a skill, is it more effective to break practice into small sub-skills and focus on them for months until they have been fully mastered, or to practice each small sub-skill together?

For example, if someone wants to learn a new programming language, should they take one basic topic and practice it over and over before diving into other topic? How did leading experts acquire their expertise?

Are there effective general strategies for learning and acquiring expertise?


There has been a lot of research into this topic in the recent years. My understanding is influenced by the following :

1. The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle.
2. Mastery by Robert Greene.
3. The Mundanity of Excellence.
4. Why Skills trump Passion by Cal Newport.

The best thing for you to do would be to read these for yourself.

CHOOSE THE CHALLENGE : This is something really important. You need to choose a challenging problem you want solve or a skill you want to master, which lies just outside your comfort zone. If it is easy, you'll feel bored. If it is too difficult, you'll feel overwhelmed. Choose something which lies just outside your comfort zone. This leads to what is usually called as the flow experience.

THE PROCESS : To simply put it, mastering a skill is a process with approximately the following steps.

1. Watch someone perform it and visualize yourself doing it.
2. Break the skill into its fundamental building blocks(fbb).
3. Choose one of the small fbb's and try to perform it.
4. At this point, you will not be able to get it right. So, slow down the performance drastically . Go step by step, making each step perfect.
5. Then, make it faster again. Play around with the pace of performance till you are fluent.
6. Repeat the performance everyday.

THE MOTIVATION : As you can see, the process is painful. You need to understand how to replenish the motivation fuel. Talent Code gives a good approach. But I prefer the one given in "The Mundanity of Excellence". Basically, motivation comes from three things : Fun, Reward and Challenge. Everyday you must try to experience these things to remain motivated. Have fun at the workplace. Attack a small challenge which lies just outside your comfort zone everyday. Achieve small targets everyday and reward yourself for doing so.

THE ATTITUDE : You need to get the attitude of a craftsman. The goal is to achieve mastery over your craft. So, when choosing jobs, prefer areas where you can achieve mastery instead of fame or money. Cal Newport explains this really well.

THE TOOLKIT - BECOMING A CRAFTSMAN : This is something out of my experience. So, how exactly can you be a good craftsman ? It's all about your tools. Imagine an empty toolkit in your hand. Now, all you got to do is fill it up with all sorts of tricks of the trade. If you can master tools that are valuable and rare, you will stand out from your peers. Enjoy collecting different tools and mastring how to use them. While learning programming, just imagine this toolkit. Everyday learn some new trick or technique and put it into your toolkit.After a few years , you will have a big toolkit and you will have the capacity to solve the big problems in your field of expertise.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to CogSci.SE! As a science SE, we strongly encourage providing verifiable sources for answers. I am familiar with the first two books, so I know that at least Greene's Mastery, while not scientific as such, references some peer reviewed research and provides his own 'case studies' of famous experts to back up his arguments somewhat. I feel this kind of detail would greatly strengthen the answer, which currently seems rather subjective. $\endgroup$ – Christian Hummeluhr Mar 26 '15 at 8:41
  • $\begingroup$ The first three books are really scientific. The third one is a research paper in a journal. The last one is not so much. Since this is sort of a summary, I maynot be able to point out exact location. What do you suggest ? Maybe provide exact case-studies ? $\endgroup$ – Srinivas K Mar 26 '15 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ When making a scientific claim (e.g., "watching someone perform an act facilitates learning that act"), it's important to provide a clear reference to a source which gives evidence for and explains why that is. If that is in a book, it is normal to specify the page(s), but I generally think it suffices to give only the chapter for this SE. This has to be done for each claim that is not self-evident (i.e., which answers a part of the question). References should be listed at the bottom and should at least include the title, publication year and author last name(s). $\endgroup$ – Christian Hummeluhr Mar 26 '15 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks. I'll do that once I collect the chapter details. $\endgroup$ – Srinivas K Mar 26 '15 at 9:34

Of course, if you try to learn a new language, you should start to learn the basics. Maybe it's good to buy a book for the topic.

Structure the knowledge

It's important to have an overview because you must know what you should learn. Maybe you can create a mindmap which is very effective. Look here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mind_map#Research

Use the knowledge

Like in Math you should use the techniques like division, multiplying... It's the same with languages. Read books in the language you want to learn.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to cogsci.SE! We are different from other stack exchange sites in that we are looking for answers grounded in peer-reviewed cognitive science, so we encourage backing up assertions with citations to specific research. Such as: How do we know it's important to have an overview? How does it help to have an overview? What is an overview? Etc. $\endgroup$ – Krysta Mar 25 '15 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ That's good, but it doesn't actually improve the answer much. Citing wikipedia doesn't give a specific information about how the effectiveness of mind maps are supported by research (see Christian's comments about the question, which also apply to this answer). $\endgroup$ – Krysta Mar 26 '15 at 12:04

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