Parents Guide to the Best Practice Techniques for Students
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In this guide
What is Practice and Why does it Matter for Effective Learning?
The Art and Science Of Practice
3 Key Components of Practice as an Effective Learning Technique
The 4 Most Effective Types of Practice Techniques
There’s a popular story you may have read in several places. It is about a pottery teacher who splits her class into two halves.
She asks the first half to spend the semester studying pottery planning and designing with the goal of creating ‘the perfect pot’. She tells the other half that they will spend the semester making ‘lots of pots’.
The former group would be judged by whoever had the best pot. The latter group would be graded based on how many finished pots they made. They too would get to enter the best of their pots in a competition.
The first group spent the term researching, planning, and designing their one single ‘perfect pot’.
The second group, to be graded on the number of pots they had to make, immediately set about churning out pots - big, small, perfect, imperfect, simple and complicated pots. They got better and better at making more - and better - pots. The more pots they made, the more they improved not just the quality of their pots but also the efficiency and speed with which they were making them.
At the end of the term, all students submitted their one best pot and voting began. The best pots all, without exception, came from the second group - students focused on making as many pots as they could. Practice had made them better potters than the group focused on making one single ‘perfect’ pot.
Moral of the story? In life, the best way to learn a skill is…….to make a lot of (metaphorical) pots! 😃
What is Practice and How Does it Matter to Effective Learning?
Technically, practice (as a verb) is defined as ‘performing (an activity) or exercise (a skill) repeatedly or regularly in order to acquire, improve or maintain proficiency in it’.
Basically, do something over and over again till you are proficient, and then keep doing it at regular intervals to stay proficient.
In the learning context, practice can be a powerful tool for effective learning.
In fact, Ofsted has said that learning implies at least some change to the student’s long-term memory. A note in this paper observes,
‘If nothing in the long-term memory has been altered, nothing has been learned’,
Practice is the key to cementing new learning into our long-term memory, making the other abilities of an effective learner possible: recall, connect and apply.
So practice, for us parents of effective learners, is one of the keys to put things our kids learn into their long-term memory. Practice is way more effective than rote learning because it is not aimed at one perfect pot (passing an exam) but at being able to master a subject so as to make ever-better pots through life!
The Art and Science Of Practice
Practice is not about mindlessly repeating the same topic.
It is not reading and rereading. It is not solving the same sum again and again.
It is a pretty solid technique with a lot of research behind what kind of practice works and what doesn't.
Of course, most of that is written for educators and child psychologists. Which is why we sifted through everything we could find on the ‘art and science of practice’ and put together this guide in simple language for parents to work with.
First things first- practice is not one thing. There are multiple practice techniques to be aware of, try, and…well, practice!
There are many variations to practice that we can try, to aid learning outcomes. For different learning situations, different practice techniques may apply so be mindful in choosing the right way for the right goals.
Second, practice is as useful to learn academic things as it is for ‘non-academic’ learning. Many of us tend to believe in the power of practice for endeavors such as singing, dancing or playing a sport or musical instrument, for example.
However, when it comes to regular academic subjects, such as English or Math, we as parents hardly say, “did you practice math today”?
Instead, we speak in terms of studying, homework, tests, tuitions as ways to learn. These are not the same as practice. With deliberate practice in regular academic subjects, you can see astonishing recall and application happen. That is true learning.
For effective learning, practice is important. It strengthens the fundamental understanding, and aids recall, by putting information firmly into our long-term memory.
In this article, we delve into the various types of practice techniques that learners can use to help themselves during the learning process, and examine which one may be useful for you to deploy in different learning contexts.
Fun fact: In Australian and British English, 'practise' is the verb and 'practice' is the noun. But in American English, both are spelt with a ‘c’. (Sorry, I’m also an editor!)
3 Key Components of Practice as an Effective Learning Technique
The three important elements of practice are:
- Regularity over a period of time
The frequency, way of repeating, and degree of recall varies depending on the practice technique used and the stage of the learning process one may be at.
Practice is awesome because it can be done anytime, anywhere, while waiting in line even, and needs no special tech, device or app to make it effective!
Make this month your Practicing to Practice month!
Depending on your child’s age, observe, think about and talk about your child’s practice routines for anything they are learning. Be conscious about it.
Experiment with some of these techniques and see if they make a difference to the speed and quality of learning, and don’t forget to let me know by email or Instagram if you see any difference.
The 4 Most Effective Types of Practice are:
- Retrieval practice
- Deliberate Practice
- Distributed Practice (Includes Interleaving Practice)
- Mixed Practice
1. Retrieval Practice
Unlike the act of studying - getting information into the learner’s head, in retrieval practice, the focus is entirely on getting stuff out of our head - or retrieving bits of information out of our heads.
Often, we struggle to recall pieces of information we think we know or should know - perhaps something we just learnt recently.
Retrieval practice helps us work on the ability to retrieve the information we want, when we want by struggling with the act of retrieval and forming strategies to do it more efficiently. In simple terms, the act of recalling previously learned information improves long-term learning and memory.
The education inspection framework released by Ofsted also endorses retrieval practice as an effective tool for knowledge retention.
Research also shows that retrieval is a powerful learning technique, compared to lectures, re-reading, or even note taking. The research of cognitive scientist Dr. Pooja Agarwal, who studies learning and memory, found that Retrieval Practice consistently benefits student learning.
She recommends that instead of asking students to retrieve information only during assessments, retrieval should be encouraged and practiced during learning, to improve students’ understanding and retention of classroom material.
You may already be using quizzes, reviews and tests as a way to aid retrieval of information - however, Dr. Agarwal cautions that the technique is most effective and powerful when used as a learning strategy, not an assessment tool.
2. Deliberate Practice Technique
This technique is based on the principle that each new skill goes through four stages:
- Unconscious incompetence: you don’t know that you don’t know
- Conscious incompetence: you know that you don't know
- Conscious competence: you know it but have to put in effort to practice and apply it
- Unconscious competence: you know it so well that you go into auto mode and just do what needs to be done.
A great example of this in real life is learning to drive a car. From not knowing how to drive, to being able to do it almost automatically is the learning process that is made possible by deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is useful because the better you get at doing things automatically, the more you can focus on the ‘strategic’ aspects of the task. For example, when you are a highly proficient reader, you are not as focused on the act of reading the words, which comes automatically, as you are on interpreting the meaning of the writer and making connections with information you already have.
I want to share another anecdote I once heard somewhere (I cannot remember where though, and I am not sure if this actually occurred, but let’s focus on the point it demonstrates rather than the veracity of the facts!).
A lady once met the artist Picasso at a luncheon, and he decided to make her a painting right there, impromptu. In five minutes, the lady held an original Picasso in her hand. She thanked him and said only a true master like him could create a masterpiece in 5 minutes.
To which he replied that being able to create a masterpiece in 5 minutes actually took him 25 years of practice. I think that example nicely sums up the spirit of deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice has 5 key thumb rules:
- Talent is not enough - practice is necessary
- Expert performance cannot come till automaticity is achieved in the base task
- Frequent, regular repetition over extended repetition: practicing at regular intervals in short bursts is more effective than cramming all night or working all day on something (the mind wanders half the time, since sustaining focus on the same thing for a long time is difficult).
- Milestones and goals are critical to making sustained progress over time
- Getting constructive inputs and feedback on performance during the practice is very valuable to making improvements on the go.
In a recent podcast, the international coach and author Robin Sharma shared his experience when he was skiing in New Zealand. There, he saw the world champion Michelle Gisin practicing one of the most basic and early-stage techniques called the snow plow. He asked his instructor why the world champion would need to do this beginner level move. To which the instructor replied that practicing and revising the basics is what gives Ms. Gisin strong foundations, so she can come up with ever more challenging and innovative performances. In fact, in the world of sports, most top-league players regularly and religiously practice their basics to keep their foundations strong, even after they have won countless matches and proven their expertise over and over.
3. Distributed and Interleaving Practice Techniques:
Common teaching methodology says to master something, repeat it ad nauseum until it sits in your brain. Science and research, on the other hand, shows us that while this works in the short term, chances of retaining that new knowledge without regular practice is slim.
But it's not just regular practice, it's mixing up the practice that works the real magic for the learning to occur. These next two types of practice are similar in that it talks about spacing out your practice, but there is a difference, so read them carefully.
3.1 Distributed (or Spaced) Practice:
This technique is based on the idea that spacing out study gives our mind time to process the information, make connections between ideas and prior knowledge, and help with recall when needed.
It essentially needs the child to review material regularly, but not all at the same time. Distributed practice is an alternative technique to the more common ‘massed practice’, where the same thing is practiced multiple times in the same session.
For example, an early learner may practice the spelling of a certain word several times (and get better with each time), but instead, if we had her practice spelling 5 different words at one time and then come back to the first, recall may be more challenging and thus more effective.
In fact this was validated by research conducted on preschoolers by the team at Learning Scientists. On their site, they say, “The goal of this set of experiments was to investigate whether spaced retrieval practice with preschool children would help them learn. Specifically, the authors tested expanding retrieval practice, where the first retrieval attempts are closely spaced, and the amount of space between subsequent retrieval attempts gets larger (i.e., the spacing expands).” They found that children that practiced expanding retrieval practice remembered significantly more than children in the other control groups.
In distributed practice, the learner is learning a similar topic (in this case spellings) but of different words.
For example, if a child practices writing the letter A, B, C and D as AAAAAAAAABBBBBBBBBCCCCCCCCC (known as ‘blocking practice’ or ‘massed practice’ and typical of what we see pre-schools in India doing) then trying ABCDABCDABCD, or Even ABCD, BDAC, CDAB and so on will improve recall and remembering outcomes. You get the idea.
Similarly, for older learners, trying to cram everything before the exam (massed recall) will be less effective than spending 30 minutes everyday recalling (spaced recall) even on days when exams are far away. Essentially, the child is distributing the recall over multiple sessions.
3.2. Interleaving Practice
This technique is similar to distributed practice or spaced practice, but suggests that entire topics be mixed up instead of just contents within the same theme, subject or topic.
Interleaving basically says that learning is boosted when we mix up topics in a single practice session, thus needing learners - especially children - to consciously distinguish between each type of problem each time they work it.
For example, in a math class, instead of doing 10 addition sums, it may be better to do one addition, one subtraction, one multiplication and one division sum, and then come back to the addition.
We have tried this learning technique at home and it works for us. We found that though initially it was more challenging, my little learners got better at solving mixed up problems over time, being able to recall exactly what steps were needed to solve a sum versus adding things like automation.
Earlier, I had double-checked this tendency to go into automation mode by slipping in a subtraction sum in a line-up of 10 addition sums, and sure enough, my son added it, not even noticing that there was a minus sign instead of a plus.
Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning, a book for educators, shares research by cognitive scientists that confirms that mixing up concepts being learnt in a single session can increase (and even double) math learning.
The same works in any skill building exercise. Consider cricket. My kids go to a local coaching academy, and for the first three months, the coach asked them each day to practice a certain kind of stroke.
Hundreds of times, the same stroke. After a few days, he switched to a second kind of stroke and the repetition started again. Armed with my knowledge of interleaving, I suggested (very gently - as coaches do not, as a rule, like over-smart parents who give them unsolicited advice) asking the kids to perform 4-5 different kinds of strokes every day, in no particular order, would force them to recall the stroke when they heard him call its name.
For some reason, he tried my suggestion and we all felt it worked better and also kept the children more engaged as now they had to give the stroke practice their full attention instead of going into auto mode after the first 30 times, and having their attention wander out of boredom. In other words, it worked! (Sometimes, mommy DOES know best ;)
4. Mixed Practice Techniques
Mixed practice helps strengthen learning by changing the context in which the same information or task is learned. For example, with younger kids, repeating learning content in different formats works really well. For example, if you read a book on Day 1, on Day 3 you may do a drawing about the book’s story, and on Day 5 you may do an activity centered around the same theme. This way, you are repeating the information periodically, while also mixing up the formats. Both -the periodic repetition and the different context in which the same information is consumed help to create connections and aid recall.
What impacts the learning outcomes from practice and repeat is the frequency, the depth and the effort the learner puts into practicing regularly. If a learner is only learning something to pass an exam (like most of us did growing up!) then chances are the repetition will stop soon after the exam and the concept will be forgotten as new types of information compete for our brain’s (limited) attention.
Ready to Practice Your Practice?
How our brain works is that the more often it hears a piece of information, the more likely it is to remember it. Information that has not been used in years will most likely be forgotten, or as we put it more euphemistically, we become ‘rusty’ at it.
If we start refreshing long-unused or rusty skills or knowledge, it does come back with enough practice and repetition. For example, if you heard once that the first Prime Minister of India was Nehru, and never heard that again, chances are you will not retain it. But if you reminded yourself every few days that the first Prime Minister was Nehru, you will more likely retain that information over the long term.
Same as riding a bike. You do it so much when you are young that even if you feel out-of-practice as an adult, you can pick it up faster than an adult who has never done it before. Whatever practice technique you choose to use - you may even come up with your own hybrid versions - the important thing is the age-old cliche: practice makes perfect - does hold merit. The only point to remember is not to blindly practice the same thing over and over again, for the sake of practicing.
Practice has to be progress oriented - it has to make you better, even if it's in microscopic units.
If progress-oriented learning is your goal (and not just passing a test or exam), then practice smart instead of practicing hard, keep increasing the bar and intensity of the challenge. Make it a deliberate part of your effective learning process, just like reflection and feedback.
You and your child are sure to see the benefits over the long term.
The Effective Learning Framework
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