Let Learners Practice and then Apply the Content to Genuine Problems

Letting learners practice using new knowledge and skills helps ensure they will remember and apply them. Providing opportunities to apply what they have learned to real-world problems prepares learners to address challenges they may encounter in their work.

The Science Behind the Practice

workshop held in a forest
Kate MacFarland, USDA Forest Service

This best practice covers two important strategies to ensure that adults use what they have learned in your events once they return to their work. The first strategy is about creating opportunities for learners to revisit and practice the lessons learned, whether they are scientific concepts or points of policy, a set of manual or technical skills, or troubleshooting protocols and strategies. The second aspect involves providing real-world or genuine problems that learners can relate to and can solve by applying their knowledge and skills. We discuss the science behind each strategy in the following sections. 

Deliberate Practice

From a neuroscience perspective, the more an activity, either mental or physical, is repeated, the stronger and more efficient the neural networks become that represent the activity. This increases the likelihood learners will recall and apply the knowledge or skills associated with the activity when needed (Hill and Schneider 2006). Even very complex activities, like driving a car, can be repeated so often that they become automatic and do not require much conscious thought to perform. This is one more way the brain favors efficiency. By automating frequently repeated knowledge and skills, the conscious brain is freed up to focus on how to apply them to current circumstances or special problems. Imagine driving in torrential rain. You become hyper-aware of the challenge, assess the situation each moment and consciously decide on how to apply safe driving principles. All the while, your basic ability to drive remains on “auto-pilot.” For an example in agriculture, a dairy farmer needs to thoroughly understand the calving process and have the necessary skills so that when problem calvings arise they can focus on troubleshooting the situation and not be preoccupied with trying to recall the basics of calving.

As an educator, the more you give learners chances to recall key concepts and practice essential skills, the more likely it is they will be able to apply their new knowledge and skills when challenges or opportunities arise. Fortunately, researchers have identified the most effective ways for instructors to guide learners through the processes of recall and practice. This set of strategies is called deliberate practice (Ericsson 2008). 

Before we describe what deliberate practice involves, let’s go over what it does not involve. Deliberate practice does not involve:

  • Rote memorization, reviewing material already read, prolonged repetition of concepts or skills, or imitation of physical actions (These strategies are appropriate at the very early stages of learning to establish initial neural pathways, but learners should discontinue them after they develop a basic familiarity with the content.)
  • Being “right” or “wrong.” As learners strive to reach higher performance goals, harsh judgement about the success of an effort will undermine progress.
  • Prolonged periods of independent practice in seclusion

Now that we know what it is not, the core concepts of deliberate practice include: 

  • The overall goal is to fill in gaps in knowledge and skills, not to repeat what has already been mastered, so practice focuses on specific, well-defined performance goals that pose a modest challenge for learners. Performance goals can be set by instructors or in collaboration with learners.
  • Practice is relatively brief. Simple goals or self-quizzes may take less than a minute of practice; complex goals may require a few hours. 
  • Practice requires learners to retrieve or recall information from memory without the use of prompts.
  • Mistakes are helpful. Neural networks representing knowledge and skills developed through mistakes are longer lasting than those developed relatively easily without mistakes (Metcalf 2017). 
  • Errors guide subsequent rounds of practice.
  • Instructors, coaches or slightly more advanced peers are available to provide immediate, constructive feedback. Feedback focuses on the effectiveness of strategies learners used as well as the outcome of the practice. 
  • As learners progress, practice for one goal is interspersed with practice for other goals, and the time between practice sessions increases.

As you review the list, imagine how you might include this type of practice in one of your educational programs. The box “Practice Your Knowledge About Adult Learning Best Practices” includes an example of a quick deliberate-practice activity involving knowledge retrieval. Go ahead, give this self-quiz a try now. 

Practice Your Knowledge About Adult Learning Best Practices

You have just read about five adult learning best practices. To the best of your ability, recall and write down the names of at least three of the five practices. Take one minute for this task. When you are done, go back through the guide and check your work. Correct the wording for any best practices if needed. Write down the names of any practices you omitted.

If we were in a workshop setting for this self-quiz, instead of checking your work by looking up the names of the best practices, you could share your responses with another participant for feedback. If you were the workshop instructor, you could review the group responses to identify if any of the best practices tended to be overlooked, and then review that content specifically before moving to the next topic. 

When you are preparing a learning program, incorporate brief deliberate-practice activities like the one just described. These activities may reveal much more about learners’ skill levels and knowledge than asking open-ended questions like, “Do you understand?” or “Does anyone have questions?” Be sure to establish a positive “learning culture” where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities and not as failures. 

When you are preparing a learning program, incorporate brief deliberate-practice activities like the one just described. These activities may reveal much more about learners’ skill levels and knowledge than asking open-ended questions like, “Do you understand?” or “Does anyone have questions?”

Integrating practice activities into your learning events requires expertise of the content as well as the ability to identify specific knowledge and skills important for learners to remember at key points throughout the learning process. The profile “Deliberate Practice in a Workshop Series on Sustainable Livestock Production” describes how a group of Extension educators incorporated deliberate practice of key skills into a workshop series.

people examining a clover plant
Rachel Bespuda, University of Connecticut Extension

Genuine Problems

As adult learners practice and develop strong memories for essential knowledge and skills, the next step is for them to engage in real-world activities that require them to apply what they know and can do. Through application to real-world problems, adults move from having discrete sets of knowledge and skills to having broader, interconnected abilities and a greater understanding of contextual factors that impact application (Sarathy 2018). In addition, when learners can connect their own experiences with those presented by a genuine problem, they are more intrinsically motivated to keep working on the problem when they run into challenges. 

When you design an educational program, incorporate opportunities for learners to both practice knowledge and skills and to then apply them to genuine problems. This applies to all types of programs, from a comprehensive course-based curriculum to a single workshop or webinar. One source of genuine problems is the learners themselves. Most farmers will be able to describe challenges they have experienced that can become the focus of a problem-solving activity. Depending on the learning objectives, you may ask individuals to apply their knowledge and skills to address a problem on their own farm or ask a group of learners to address a problem volunteered by one of the group members.

In addition, when learners can connect their own experiences with those presented by a genuine problem, they are more intrinsically motivated to keep working on the problem when they run into challenges. 

While genuine problems based on the experiences of participants are likely to be relatable and stimulate interest, they can have elements that fall outside the content being addressed and require application of knowledge and skills that learners have not yet developed. To ensure that the problems learners focus on are appropriate for their ability levels and the educational context, many instructors design their own genuine problems. Scenarios and case studies are two formats you can use to present problems to your learners. They are especially adaptable to a variety of learning contexts. Use Table 1 as a guide for deciding when a scenario or a case study might be more appropriate in your particular context. 

Table 1. Formats for Presenting Problems
ScenariosCase Studies
Often fictitious, designed to highlight specific real-life issuesBased on real-life experiences or events
Appropriate for novice learners or in contexts where time is limited and participants have varied levels of experience or backgrounds (e.g., a one-hour workshop)Appropriate for more advanced learners and in contexts where learners can spend blocks of time on the case
Relatively simple with limited focusComplex, may include a variety of issues
Brief, may be addressed in minutesLengthy, may require a few hours to address
Require learners to apply a narrow set of knowledge or skillsRequire learners to apply a broad range of knowledge and skills
There is often a “best” or “correct” way to address issuesNo clear “best” or “correct” ways to address issues
May depict errors or omissions made that learners must identify and correctRequire learners to consider alternatives, prioritize issues, identify trade-offs
Cues are provided to guide learners toward the optimal outcomeMay require seeking and using materials that are not immediately at hand
Can be resolved with materials at handWell-suited for a collaborative small group format, may involve division of labor among group members
Well suited for pairs or small-group formats

Regardless of the source or format of the genuine problem, use the following prompts to structure the activity so that learners apply their knowledge and skills effectively and further develop their problem-solving skills. These prompts are appropriate for both novice and advanced learners. Depending on the context and available time, you may ask learners to:

  • “Think aloud” as they work through the problem and explain the reasoning they are using to assess it, prioritize the issues and decide on a course of action (Ericsson 2006)
  • Describe assumptions or biases underlying their decisions
  • Explicitly describe the knowledge and skills they applied to the problem scenario or case
  • Identify what knowledge, skills or resources they need to improve based on their work on the problem scenario or case, and how they can go about making those improvements
  • Identify a challenge they have faced or may face in the near future that has characteristics similar to those depicted in the problem, and describe aspects of their work on the problem they could apply to that personal challenge

Benefits of peer collaboration. Each of the prompts listed above requires individual learners to be introspective and reflective. However, this does not mean they should address the prompts in isolation. Studies show that learners benefit in numerous ways when prompts such as these are embedded in collaborative problem-solving activities and when they work together on genuine problems (Luckin et al. 2017). 

Learners who collaborate are more motivated, creative and successful in resolving problems compared to individuals who work alone.

Learners who collaborate are more motivated, creative and successful in resolving problems compared to individuals who work alone. Novice learners in particular benefit from collaboration because it enables them to address problems that exceed their current ability levels and to expand their knowledge and skill base in the process. The benefits extend beyond the classroom to farmers who collaborate with peers to address problems they experience on their farms. For example, dairy farmers who met regularly in “discussion clubs” with peers became more proactive at solving problems on their farms, and their bottom line improved as well (Hansen 2015). Consider facilitating collaborative activities such as these dairy farmers’ clubs in your educational programs. You can design opportunities for collaboration in both in-person and virtual settings by organizing pairs or small groups for discussion, peer interviews, practice exercises or working on scenarios or case studies.

Wrap Up

Brief, focused, frequent, low-risk practice with immediate feedback usually works best.

This adult learning best practice is essential for ensuring that farmers retain the knowledge and skills you have helped them to develop and to apply what they have learned to real-life challenges they may experience on their farms. This best practice requires you to incorporate opportunities for farmers to deliberately practice their knowledge and skills into your learning plan or curriculum. Brief, focused, frequent, low-risk practice with immediate feedback usually works best. To strengthen interconnections among discrete knowledge and skills, farmers need to apply what they have learned to genuine problems they can relate to. Structuring problem activities so that learners work together in pairs or in small groups is particularly effective in expanding farmers’ abilities to address problems that arise on their farms.

How to Apply the Best Practice

Strategies for deliberate practice and application to genuine problems.

Better for in-person settings

  • Practice using and calibrating tools for cultural practices such as on-farm energy monitoring, irrigation monitoring, tillage, weeding, spraying, etc.
  • Present scenarios to participants and ask volunteers to role play how they would identify and resolve the issues. Examples of roles include buyer/seller, employer/employee, farmer/advisor and farmer/inspector. 

Adaptable to both in-person and virtual settings

  • Practice creating financial plans, marketing plans or enterprise budgets using software or other tools.
  • Practice creating marketing signs, logos, merchandising displays or online ads.
  • Practice assessing soil test results and field management data and history, and then apply the results to make nutrient management decisions.
  • Practice assessing an energy audit, a GAP inspection report, or IPM scouting and forecast data, and use the results to create an action plan.
  • Use site visits or videos from sites, mockups of samples, or aspects of benchmark enterprises as sources of scenarios or case studies. Examples of sources include marketing displays, signage or advertising; animal handling; crop management; marketing enterprises; and labor and time management on farms. Guide participants through learning application activities with questions such as: “What do you think is the primary issue or concern?”; “What questions would you have for the operator?”; “What course of action would you recommend?” or “What might you do differently and why?”
  • When engaging learners in activities such as those described above, include time after the exercise to debrief. In the debrief, highlight any gaps in knowledge or skills and assess the strengths and weaknesses of strategies participants used in the scenario. Also, include an “action planning” activity so that participants leave with plans for enhancing their knowledge and skills and for applying them to their own enterprises.
  • Provide resources and/or take-home activities or assignments to support learners in following through with their action plans. Examples include online resources like websites, wiki documents, blogs or apps, and print documents like budget tools, calibration sheets, decision support tools, planning workbooks, checklists and data/observation recording sheets. 
  • With permission, invite participants to share contact information with each other so they can continue to learn from and support each other after learning events. You may also build ongoing peer collaboration and learning into your program from the beginning by inviting participants to enroll with a learning partner or pick one early in the program who will be a willing contact for questions and feedback as they practice and learn.

Review Questions and Reflections

  • In your own words, what is the relationship between deliberate practice and memory?
  • How do learners benefit when they apply their knowledge and skills to genuine problems compared to generic problems? 
  • How do learners benefit when they work with peers on genuine problems compared to when they work alone? 
  • Think about an upcoming learning event or program you are working on. 
    • What is one essential concept or skill that will be covered in the event or program?
    • Describe a brief activity you could include that would provide a deliberate practice opportunity to strengthen participants’ memory of the concept or skill.
    • Briefly outline a scenario or case study that depicts a genuine problem that requires use of the concept or skill to solve


Deliberate Practice in a Workshop Series on Sustainable Livestock Production 

Rachel Bespuda, Jean King and Joe Bonelli, University of Connecticut Extension

A woman holding a card to a goats head with two people steadying the goat outside
Rachel Bespuda, University of Connecticut Extension

In a series of classroom and field-based workshops, Rachel Bespuda, Jean King and Joe Bonelli taught farmers and agricultural service providers about nutrition’s role in sustainable livestock production. Participants learned about topics such as livestock nutrition, pasture management, forage quality and grazing. The educators included a variety of hands-on opportunities for practicing key knowledge and skills in the curriculum, including:

  • Body condition scoring on cattle, swine and small ruminants
  • FAMACHA testing and fecal egg counts on small ruminants to assess parasite load
  • Forage growth assessment using a pasture stick and quadrant
  • Collecting a uniform hay sample
  • Testing for soil compaction

Instructors provided feedback to participants and used group discussions to help participants identify ways to continue to improve their knowledge and skills. 

For more information

SARE project: Nutrition’s role in sustainable livestock production practices (2017)

Read more: https://projects.sare.org/sare_project/nect17-001/

Using Learners as a Source of Genuine Problems

Olivia Saunders, University of New Hampshire Extension

people looking at bee hives
Olivia Saunders, University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension

An example of individuals working on their own genuine problems comes from Olivia Saunders’ education module for bee school instructors. First, Saunders shared concepts about adult learning during the course. Then for homework the bee school instructors had to take their previously taught lessons they thought needed improvement and redesign them or add new features using concepts they had just learned. For example, Saunders asked them to think about how they could improve a lesson plan where learners frequently had trouble mastering a challenging concept or skill, or whether they could enhance comprehension by using a new approach to either how they explained concepts or organized a hands-on component.

Afterwards, Saunders and the bee school instructors met for an in-person workshop in which participants shared their redesigned lessons and new ideas to utilize in their bee schools. The group trialed some of the new educational activities designed by participants, and shared critiques and suggestions.

For more information

SARE project: Tech transfer for New Hampshire beekeepers (2017)

Read more: https://projects.sare.org/project-reports/nenh17-001/

Supporting Dairy Farmers in Nutrient Management through Practice, Application and Peer Collaboration

Tom Morris, University of Connecticut Extension

aerial view of a dairy farm
Courtesy USDA-NRCS

Managing nutrients efficiently requires the ability to both collect and interpret data from multiple sources, then know what actions to take based on what the data say. In a sense, it’s like trying to solve a puzzle. Drawing from more than 25 years of experience working with dairy farmers to manage nutrients in corn production, Tom Morris, a key collaborator in a project led by Karl Guillard, also from UConn, used this analogy to create an engaging tool that illustrates all aspects of this best practice.

The tool, called the Nitrogen Fertilization Puzzle Solver, is used in small groups at meetings to help learners practice data interpretation. Farmers receive data from their fields about soil nutrient levels, rainfall, management history and, in more recent years, aerial images. These data are the “clues.” They then use a sheet that helps them interpret what the clues mean in terms of how sufficiently fertilized the corn was and whether the soil likely had too much, too little or an optimal amount of nitrogen available.

Farmers then practice obtaining different interpretations from the Puzzle Solver based both on their results and on scenarios where the results are higher or lower than their actual measurements (for example, scenarios that assume much higher or lower rainfall). The farmers then decide if the suggested management changes would solve the puzzle of how much nitrogen they should apply. In this way, participants combine their prior knowledge and experience with knowledge and skills gained from practice with the tool to make informed management decisions about manure and nitrogen fertilizer applications on their own farms.

Although each farmer focuses on the genuine problem of nutrient management on their own farm, they discuss their data and thought processes with peers. Over the course of several years, farmers meet routinely in small groups with other local dairy farmers whom they trust and respect. By sharing data, farm circumstances and constraints that factored into their decisions, and by making a commitment to support each other’s learning, members develop a breadth and depth of knowledge and become more adept at managing nutrients on their farms.

For more information

SARE project: Improved N management for corn using aerial images, Adapt-N, chemical and biological tests, and cover crops (2018)

Read more: https://projects.sare.org/sare_project/lne18-363/

Incorporating Deliberate Practice and Application of Knowledge and Skills in a Wholesale Market Training Curriculum 

Violet Stone, Cornell Cooperative Extension

Cover for Baskets to Pallets teaching manual

For direct marketing farmers, making the decisions to enter new wholesale markets requires much planning and, in most cases, new knowledge and skills. To help them through this process, agricultural educators and service providers in New York led by Violet Stone developed a comprehensive curriculum and teaching manual and delivered it through a series of regional workshops. The curriculum, called Baskets to Pallets, contains multi-component modules on a variety of needed skills. Each module in the guide is rich with deliberate practice and application opportunities for farmers. Here is a sampling from the course’s marketing module: 

  • Farmers first learn tips for approaching prospective buyers and listen to recorded interviews from buyers about their product needs. Next, they divide into small groups and conduct a buyer/seller role-playing exercise where they practice introducing themselves and making their pitch to a buyer. Members of the small group provide peer feedback. Volunteers from small groups then repeat the role play for the entire group and receive feedback from all participants.
  • After learning about sell sheets (which communicate information about a farm and its product offerings for wholesale buyers), branding and labeling, farmers work in small groups to critique sell sheets from example farmers and discuss key features about the farms and the products that the sell sheets were communicating. They also critique sample product labels for messaging and regulatory compliance. Following these activities, farmers create labels for their own products.
  • After learning about different forms of collaborative marketing relationships, how to form them and keys to relationship success, farmers in small groups work through a checklist for evaluating collaborative relationships and a questionnaire designed to assess prospective partners. They also try their hand at constructing a mutually satisfactory contract using an example worksheet. 
  • Small groups also discuss problem scenarios with collaborative marketing, such as inadequate post-harvest handling capacity and dealing with variability in certification and credentials among farms. The small groups come up with possible solutions. The larger group then offers the small groups feedback and additional thoughts on their ideas.

For more information

SARE project: Baskets to Pallets: Preparing small- and mid-scale farmers to enter food hubs, groceries, restaurants and cooperatives (2014 and 2017)

Read more: