What Does It Take to Become an Expert in College…and in Life?

In previous posts, I entered the fray about why college matters by making the case for the true purpose of learning: 1) To become proficient in a subject sufficient enough to apply that knowledge to new and novel situations; and 2) to develop life-long skills for critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem solving, and the ability to compellingly communicate orally and in writing. The latter is most critical. While new knowledge is important, it’s the thinking skills that propel us into a lifelong learning curve, and not as much the content knowledge. I don’t remember how to define a differential equation, but I do know how to approach a problem—any problem—regardless of the subject.

Regrettably, in the current US educational environment being shaped by testing—what Harvard Law Professor Lani Granier calls a “testocracy”—the nation’s educational focus has shifted toward grades and test scores that are easily measurable ostensibly as a means to assess learning. These “perverse incentives” have produced a generation of high school and college students who are achievement oriented, but have difficulty solving problems they don’t recognize. In their 1999 book, after studying scores of students, Barbara Schneider and David Stevenson referred to today’s teenagers as “Motivated But Directionless.”[1] Young people are not as concerned about learning as they are about their grades. They’re no longer majoring in Literature, or Mathematics, or Sociology; our students are majoring in Grades! A student who had slept through a biochemistry class had the gall to approach the professor and ask if the material was going to be on the test because she needed a good grade to get into medical school! Otherwise she wouldn’t worry about learning what she missed.

When I arrived in college, I was a good high school student, having been ranked in the top 10 percent of the senior class of my magnet high school, and having been accepted at one of the top engineering universities in the country. My confidence was riding high, that is, until my first exam in college. My “38” was the lowest grade I had ever earned on a 100-point test in all my 18 years of life. As you could imagine, it devastated me. Doubts didn’t creep into my head, they drenched me like a torrent.

 In my 30 years in higher education as a student, mentor, advisor, and associate dean, I’ve come away with one immutable fact: How you respond to struggle distinguishes whether you’re going to be a successful student, or just barely survive…or not. The difference between success and failure in college begins with your response to struggle and difficulty, which every student experiences at some point.

 My response to the “38” was to buckle down. I changed my study settings, leaving the distraction-ladened dormitory for the solitude of the library. When I wasn’t in class or sleeping, I was in the library. On the next set of exams, I committed to not walking out of that library until I understood every morsel of information that was taught, from the beginning of the course to that point, and not just “the what”, but “the why.” I developed a problem-solving approach –in two hour blocks—that helped me to master the material, getting better at solving problems and identifying conceptual linkages in the material. I ultimately bounced back in that class and throughout my college years, graduating with a GPA of 4.6 out of 5.0, not because I was smart, but because I was disciplined.

Researchers have called this approach to solitary focus on mastery as “Deliberate Practice.” Eric Ericsson and his colleagues[2] studied athletes and professionals who achieved exceptional performance. They discovered that each one had engaged in structured practice over a period of time during which they were relentlessly focused on getting better. They learned to identify the tasks or knowledge that were outside of their reach, and engaged in activities specifically designed to improve their performance and eliminate weaknesses in these areas.

 To engage in deliberate practice, according to Ericsson, the following conditions have to be met:

  • The learner must be motivated to get better and thus put in the effort to improve performance
  • The individual has to perform repeatable tasks that are the same or similar each time to measure incremental gains
  • The task or skill must build on preexisting knowledge of the learner so they understand what to do after they receive instruction from a tutor, coach, or professor
  • The work must be structured so that the learner receives immediate feedback while practicing to know how to get better, and to build confidence.
  • Over time, the activities should get increasingly complex and difficult, ultimately leading to the individual discovering new methods to perform the task


When these conditions are met over a period of 10,000 hours, according to Ericsson, the subject typically reaches a level of expert performance that trumps innate ability that distinguishes  individuals. In other words, even if someone comes into an activity with early ability (i.e., they come to college with a stronger background in a subject or skill), accumulating more hours studying in this way will overcome those differences. (Think tortoise and the hare.) By the way, Ericsson’s research was made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book, Outliers: The Story of Success, a book I highly recommend for all high school and college students.

How does Deliberate Practice translate for you? First, I want to revisit my earlier point about the purpose of learning. Is your goal mastery, or just getting good grades? Is it becoming an expert in your field, or just getting a paycheck? If exceptional achievement is your goal, then you must engage in a structured approach to learning every new subject, skill, or job. You must identify the skills needed to perform at high levels and overcome your weaknesses, and then put in the time. As Susan Cain writes in her book about this subject, “Practice [study] sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful—they’re counterproductive.”[3]


[1] Schneider, B. & Stevenson, D. (1999). The Ambitious Generation: Today’s Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless. New Haven, CT: New Haven Press.

[2] Ericsson, KA., Krampe, RT. & Tesch-Romer,C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. The Psychological Review 100(3), pp. 363-406.

[3] Cain, S. (2012). Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Wayne T. Wilson Jr. says:

    Great post, Doc. I totally agree. The skills that I left undergrad with that are still of major value today, I did not obtain in the classroom setting but rather the university setting.

    Being able to relate to people, lead, clearly articulate your ideas & thoughts, multi-task, solve problems and think critically are skills that can only be developed through repetitive action. Practice! We can’t depend solely on higher education to provide the youth the skills they need to be successful today.

    • karlwreid says:

      Well said, Wayne. We have to make these intellectual skills you articulate more explicitly part of the K-20 educational curriculum, with time to develop mastery. The global economy, and the needs that the world has for our solutions are dependent on it.