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How I Used Deliberate Practice to Destroy my Computer Science Final

The Deliberate Student

I just received the e-mail reproduced below from a computer science major who successfully applied the deliberate practice hypothesis to his academic work.

This is good food for thought for students home for Christmas break. As you think about your fall and make plans for your spring, remind yourself of the following essential truth:

When it comes to studying, there’s a huge difference between doing work and doing useful work. If you’re not putting a lot of thought into navigating this distinction, you’re probably mired in the former.

On to the e-mail…

  • “I’m a computer science major with little background in programming. I took a data structures course this semester, and scored below average on my midterm.”
  • “I actually studied pretty hard for that exam, but obviously failed to make the distinction between ‘hard work’ and ‘hard to do work’.”
  • “Last week, I decided to use deliberate practice to weed out my weak points by going over the more difficult problem sets in extreme detail. I ended up breaking the curve for the final.”[Cal: see here and here and here for more on applying deliberate practice to master technical topics.]
  • “I think the reason I failed to fully reap the benefits of deliberate practice on my midterm was that I avoided it (subconsciously), because it was mentally taxing. But that’s one of the reasons why it works.”


This post is part of my series on the deliberate practice hypothesis, which claims that applying the principles of deliberate practice to the world of knowledge work is a key strategy for building a remarkable working life.

Previous posts:

(Photo by JSmith Photo)

17 thoughts on “How I Used Deliberate Practice to Destroy my Computer Science Final”

  1. Cal, love the blog.

    Could you do a post where you/someone actually breaks down how you would do this? The theory behind it makes sense, but I’m having trouble seeing how this is actually put into practice.

  2. Cal, These posts are enormously helpful. I am continually learning from them. Here’s what I suggest. There are some exercises at which we improve with deliberate practice, like doing math problem sets and playing the piano. There are other activities, however, that may include such exercises but that are much larger and less restricted in scope, like planning scientific research projects or writing feature articles for the New Yorker or, perhaps, writig your books. Are you calling things of different kinds by the same name, deliberate practice?

  3. Cal: I’ve enjoyed following this thought progression and continue to look for ways to try it out in my own graduate studies (landscape architecture). My challenge is figuring out what to focus on in a creative field which requires extreme breadth over depth. Agility from the initial data gathering through analysis to creative conceptual thinking to modelling to final representation is crucial.

    As one of our professors has said, “We are jacks-of-all-trades and masters of none”, pulling from the visual arts, physical/social/political sciences, literature, history, etc. to inform and challenge design solutions. This field definitely falls into the realm of those having no single “right” solution or technique. Yet, it is a practice.

    Still trying to figure out what the day-to-day practice is.

  4. Hi Cal,
    I have been trying to reach you for a while now. I checked for your email address and also I looked at your info on this site. Please how can one reach you if he/she has personal questions? My questions pertain to the book “How to Win at College”. I find some tips a little contradictory as I followed the book my first semester of college. Thank you and have a nice day.

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  6. I finally figured out what I have been doing wrong all these years. So, I decided to try 90 minute study sessions while at the same time taking notes on my thoughts and actions throughout the study session. For example, if went to check my email after 20 min into studying I wrote that down. If I started to get nervous or tense up during the 90 min session, I wrote down why i thought I was feeling that way during my study session.

    The extra notes about my thoughts and behaviors while doing Deliberate practice showed me how many negative thoughts toward studying that I had been internalizing as well as fear about me being inadequate. A lot of these passing thoughts I had while studying had no basis in reality.

    I think writing these thoughts out you begin to realize what the real problem is with studying and retaining info.

  7. Cool to see that deliberate practice can be applied to any field of study, including something as mind numbing and systematic as computer science! Just kidding, I love my CS major… umm… kind of.


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