This is the fifth in a series of posts unpicking the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching And Learning. In this post I investigate Principle 5: “Acquiring long-term knowledge and skill is largely dependent on practice.”

Whenever the going got tough, my mum always used to remind me that ‘practice makes perfect’. Well, I’m delighted to say it turns out she’s wrong. Sorry mum. Practice makes permanent. What we repeatedly practice we get good at, and if we practice doing the wrong things, we’ll get good at them. So, while practice is certainly necessary for us to acquire long-term knowledge and skill, as well as unpicking exactly what sort of practice we should be encouraging in our students we also need to make sure we’re not consolidating mistakes and misconceptions.

Before we get into that, I need to repeat my definition of learning as the long-term retention, and ability to transfer between contexts, of knowledge and skills. This being the case, our perennial problem, as teachers, is succinctly stated by the report:

At any given moment, students experience an enormous amount of stimuli in the environment, but only a small portion is further processed in the form of attention and encoding, ultimately moving into a time-constrained and limited-capacity memory-storage area known as short-term or working memory. To be retained more permanently, information must be transferred into long-term memory, which by definition is of relatively long duration (e.g., decades), has very large capacity, and is highly organized (e.g., categorized).

In order to avoid conceptual confusion about the definition of transfer (which I’m restricting to students’ ability to apply ideas in new and unfamiliar contexts), I’m going to refer to the process of storing information in long-term memory as retention.

An area where the report is weak is in its conflation of learning and performance. How well we are able to currently perform does not equate with learning. This is problematic because we are only able to see students’ current performance – we can never see how they will be able to perform in the future or in new contexts. And as learning dependents on transfer and retention it is, by its very nature, always invisible. Further compounding the problem is the finding that although we can infer learning from performance, students’ current performance turns about to be a poor predictor of future performance.

Although there’s also an important reminder that practice only takes you so far: “other factors such as intelligence and motivation also affect performance,” the report comes down clearly in favour of deliberate practice, which “involves attention, rehearsal, and repetition over time”. The authors draw a distinction between this deliberate practice and the pejorative ‘drill and kill’ stating, “Rote repetition—simply repeating a task—will not by itself improve performance or long-term retention of content.” Well, my lived experience exposes this as patently untrue. Rote learning is  how I have memorised times tables, the planets of the solar system, the colours of the rainbow and many other seemingly trivial but actually very useful things. Rote learning, or learning by heart if you prefer is routinely underrated. That’s not to say that rote is better than deliberate practice – this is an example where it’s ridiculous to suggest an either/or approach; rote lends itself to memorising certain kinds of knowledge, deliberate practice is preferable for others.

Despite these quibbles, I’m happy to agree with the report’s reasoning on why practice is important:

As most teachers are only too aware, some students are less than keen to participate in activities which demand intense, focused effort. But the message is clear, “expending effort leads to improved performance”. So how can teachers motivate reluctant students to engage in effortful practice?

As a starting point, we can indicate every time that practice actually improves their performance. We can also help by designing practice activities that while difficult are possible, and make it clear that we have high expectations that students can improve. It should go without saying that “unrealistic or poorly designed practice problems may lead to student frustration and less motivation to attempt future practice problems,” but what might well-designed practice problems look like?

Crucial here is an understanding of the testing effect and how low stakes quizzes can be put together. Some important points to consider include the need to:

  • vary practice activities and conditions (see Principle 4)
  • distribute (space & interleave) practice over extended periods of time
  • provide clear instructions on expectations and criteria
  • model the problem-solving process that students are expected to use.
  • break complex problems into their constituent elements, and have students practice on these smaller elements before asking them to solve complex problems independently
  • guide students through sample practice problems using metacognitive prompts to help them reflect on how to think while engaged in solving a problem
  • provide students with worked examples and exemplar answers as well as partially completed sample problems
  • wait until students actually need more information to solve a complex problem before you give them more information. This strategy — known as ‘just-in-time teaching‘ — helps keep the amount of information that students must hold in their short-term memories to a manageable level as they practice
  • provide plenty of opportunities for students to practice applying problem-solving skills before you test them on their ability to use those skills.