What it is and why it is important:
Practice is providing students with the time that they need to practise new material. It should be careful, deliberate and just outside of the student’s comfort zone.
Lemov, Woolway and Yezzi
“Practice makes permanent”.
Students “learn what they do”
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect”
Recent research has shown that Practice is critical for robust, durable, long-term learning. Every time a memory is retrieved, that memory becomes more accessible in the future. Practice also helps us create coherent and integrated mental representations of complex concepts, the kind of deep learning necessary to solve new problems and draw new inferences. (Durrington Research School)
Finding time for well-planned Practice during lessons will have a large impact upon long-term student progress. However, this also needs the students to be motivated to practise, recognising that through a ‘growth mindset’ they can improve.
Two types of Practice:
Practice for Fluency – Knowledge and procedures should be so well consolidated in the student long-term memory that they can be recalled or performed at will. Without this fluency a lack of knowledge will hamper progression.
Deliberate Practice – Set students challenging objectives and then students make a good effort at achieving it before being given feedback. When secure, students can move on to the next objective. Mistakes are inevitable and ok!
The key to meaningful Practice:
This involves the ratio between the amount of help the teacher provides during practice and the amount of independent thinking the teacher expects during practice.
The ratio will shift along a spectrum from dependency to independence as students become more confident and fluent in new material. Sometimes the journey from dependency to autonomy will take a few weeks or even months; at other times a few minutes. It all depends on the content and the class in front of you. As always, your judgement is most important in deciding when students have had enough practice to move on.
Literature to Read:
- The Science of Learning – Deans for Impact
- The role of retrieval practice in the classroom – Firth, Smith, Havard and Boxer
- How to improve retrieval practice – good to great – Ben Newmark
- Knowledge Retrieval Practice Grids – Kate Jones
- Retrieval Practice – The Learning Scientists
- The critical role of retrieval practice in long term retention – Roediger and Butler
- What will improve a student’s memory? – Daniel Willingham
- Retrieval Practice, the most powerful teaching strategy that you’re not using! – Jennifer Gonzalez
- The benefits of retrieval practice – Andy Tharby
- Where does retrieval practice sit with formative and summative assessment? – retrievalpractice.org
- A powerful way to improve learning and memory – Jeffrey Karpicke
- The benefits of spaced practice in the classroom – Megan Smith
Videos to watch:
- Retrieval Practice – Tom Sherrington
- Bjork and Bjork with Craig Barton – forgetting, memory, testing and desirable difficulties.
Strategies to try:
- Knowledge organisers – Joe Kirby
- Knowledge organisers and self-quizzing as a 5 year revision plan – Joe Kirby
- Using knowledge organisers to improve retrieval practice – Andy Tharby
- Self-quizzing as a form of homework – Rebecca Foster
- Knowledge Organisers at Primary level – Jon Brunskill
- Knowledge Organisers – Michael Tidd
- Introducing knowledge organisers – Rob Monk
- Making knowledge stick – Ross Morrisson McGill
- Using Thornton
- Guide to making and using knowledge organisers – Sarah McCleary
Strategies to try:
Mix It Up:
The best conditions for students to take in new information so that they can remember it in the long term include:
Leaving considerable time lapses between practising material it is more likely to be remembered.
Alternating between different problems rather than focussing merely on one.
This does not mean that you need to completely re-write schemes of learning. Use this more as a reminder to return to key concepts and ideas regularly, such as writing analytically or using key formula.
This approach is a good one for students to use when revising.
The Power of Three:
Graham Nuthall’s research proved that to securely learn a new concept students need to revisit it at least three times over a few days or weeks. To fit this into the curriculum try these ideas:
Introduce pivotal concepts and vocabulary at the start of lessons and schemes of learning to give students more time and opportunity to practise them later.
Use explanations, models, questions, discussions and writing as opportunities to expose students to key concepts more than once.
Consider lesson plans in terms of how each task in the lesson will enable the student to practise the same material in a slightly different way, deepening their understanding as they go.
Teach less content every lesson to ensure students have the opportunity to rehearse and practise the important ideas.
Use home learning as an opportunity to drill and practise key concepts again.
Never assume that just because a student understands the concept once that they have retained it forever.
Bear in mind that wrong ideas and misconceptions are embedded through exactly the same process.
Fold it in:
Time for practice is always difficult. Focusing upon the ideas and concepts is crucial to the overall mastery of the topic. Look for opportunities to return to these ideas in different contexts in your Schemes of Learning.
If an idea or concept is not crucial, then teaching it may take time from the practice of more crucial content.
Planning is better when ‘front loaded’ so that the difficult content is taught first and then practised later.
Depth is more crucial to learning than breadth.
Get students to focus on one question at a time, and then the different aspects of it. When practising a long essay question, practise just an introduction, then an introduction and one paragraph before embarking upon a full answer, each time focussing upon sentence structures as a part of this. This helps avoid misconceptions and the gradual build-up and repetition of micro-practice makes larger goals seem more achievable for students. But, don’t forget to practise exams skills such as time management and coping with pressure.
Say it First:
The first stage of practice will often be oral through whole-class-discussion, Q&A sessions or think, pair, share. The benefits of this approach are:
Questioning and class discussion allows you to scaffold and support students’ emergent thinking.
Thought and speech are intertwined. Verbalising our thoughts helps to clarify them. Once we find the right words to express our ideas, they are often easier to write down at a later stage.
By listening to what students say, you can pick up on misconceptions much more speedily than waiting to mark a set of books. Your teaching is therefore far more responsive and you can re-explain ideas immediately if necessary.
Consider once again the Power of Three. Verbal practice is an easy-to-manage form of repetition.
Hearing it spoken in formal academic language, by the teacher or another student, helps to scaffold subsequent writing.
When questioning, encourage your students towards speaking in formal academic language and refuse to accept incomplete or patchy answers.
Spin the Plates:
When you have a class of 30 students in front of you, the needs of the group will vary dramatically. You can respond to the students who are struggling in two ways, individually with a student or with the whole class. A general rule is that if a third or more of the class seem to be misunderstanding, you should address the whole class rather than on a one-to-one basis. Below are a few ways to help you spin those plates!
Highlight a mistake and ask the student to work out the error
Re-explain a key piece of knowledge they are missing
Point the child towards a wall display, or an unstuck station if they are struggling
Ask the student to plan their work more carefully before they go back to it
Ask the student to re-read the sentence
Ask the student to start again – especially if the work is messy or rushed
Ask the student to read the sentence out loud to see if they can spot the mistake
Verbalise the start of a sentence and let the student finish it off
Ask the student a question to extend their thinking
Ask the student to think for themselves for another minute – they need to learn the importance of struggle
Point the student in the direction of a model to give them further ideas. This could be the work of another student or an anthology of examples
Alert the whole class to common mistakes you have spotted
Use an iPad or visualiser to present a student’s work as a good example
Highlight a common misconception or re-explain an area students have struggled to master
Read aloud a good piece of work
Ask students to explain how they are struggling and talk through or model possible solutions
Build memory Platforms:
Brown et al’s Make it Stick book suggests that quizzing is a more powerful tool than re-reading notes. Simply reading creates the illusion of fluency, but it will slip from memories very quickly. Practice testing is the most effective learning technique, whilst reading is the least effective. It has also been shown that memory retrieval is most useful at the point of forgetting. The more effort we put into testing our memory, the more beneficial the practice is.
Start with a retrieval question, and then follow up with a high order question which asks the students to analyse the fact that they have just remembered. Dunlosky et al show this to be a highly effective strategy.
Try this format:
Q1 – 3 = retrieve key knowledge from last lesson.
Q4 = retrieve key knowledge from last week.
Q5 = retrieve key knowledge from last term.
Q6 = retrieve key knowledge from last lesson and connect it to knowledge from last term.
You can then use these questions as a basis for a discussion and elaboration towards the analysis.
The memory platform that you are building does not need to be in the form of a quiz, nor at the beginning of the lesson. Other ideas to try:
Retrieval practice as home learning
Students testing each other verbally: A tell B five things you remember about X and then reverse. You can support this with cues such as words and images on the board.
Give students time for reflective tasks to review their learning without notes. This could be a page of writing, a concept map or a list of notes.
Encourage students to test themselves and each other, once again without notes.
Educate parents about the value of retrieval practice so they can assist them at home.
Make them Think:
Scaffolding will help ensure that students are not only thinking, but thinking in the correct way! Here are three ways to encourage this.
Slow Writing: When setting a writing task, state not just what you want students to write about, but also the sentence structures they should use. By making students practise in this way they have to self-regulate. They are unable to spurt out the first thing that comes to mind.
Checklists: These are wonderful simple ways to embed good habits during practice. As students are working, they tick off the strategies and procedures they have used. It is self-assessment in the moment and, once again, it helps to promote accurate practice.
Vocabulary Support: When completing a written task, direct them towards challenging terminology that they must include. You can include harder words to the TIF. You can then give them a word limit to really challenge them!
Pair their Writing:
This will help to bridge the gap between guided practice and independent practice. Students work in pairs to produce a piece of writing. Give them a success criteria checklist but think about your pairings and what you want to achieve. Give each student a role. For half of the task one should be the ‘coach’, using the checklist and a dictionary/thesaurus to support the writer. Halfway through they switch.
The final outcome may be disjointed but student work will probably be of a higher quality in subsequent pieces of independent writing.