Previously, we discussed how practice and feedback influence learning. Today, we explore practice in more detail.
We already defined practice as any activity in which students engage their knowledge or skills. The book, How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, written by Susan A. Ambrose and co-authors, points out three main conditions in which practices foster learning and performance of students. According to them, students should engage in practice that focuses on a specific goal or criterion for performance, targets an appropriate level of challenge and is of sufficient quantity and frequency to meet the performance criteria.
The three main conditions in which practices foster learning and performance of students are the following:
Focusing on a specific goal
According to research, the amount of time spent practising with a specific goal in mind predicts continued learning in any field rather than time spent on generic practice. In such a goal-oriented practice, students will start pushing themselves to strive for a new goal once a particular goal is achieved. Goals provide students with a focus for their learning, and this will lead to more time and energy going to that area of focus. Another advantage of the goal-oriented practice is that teachers can easily monitor the progress towards that goal.
One of the main challenges to this goal-directed approach may be the communication gap that is likely to occur between teachers and students. Even when teachers think that they are conveying a specific goal to students, in fact, it may not have the desired effect if there is a communication gap. Teachers are subject-matter experts in the relevant subjects, and they may see things differently compared to their students who are new to these topics. When teachers convey the goals from their perspective, there is a chance that these goals may be unclear to students or they may misinterpret it. Without a clear idea, students may not be able to practise the skills that they need to develop. When goals are not clearly articulated, it is difficult for students to know how to practise.
Identifying appropriate levels of practice
In addition to focusing on specific goals and criteria, practice should be done at an appropriate level of challenge to ensure that students’ practice has a significant effect on learning. The next question that pops up in our heads will be this: How to identify an appropriate level of challenge?
An appropriate level of challenge will neither be too hard nor too easy. If the challenge is too hard, students will struggle, make many errors, and possibly give up. If the challenge is too easy, they will complete the challenge without much effort; they will not be pushed to improve.
Identifying the appropriate level of challenge is beneficial, even though it can be time-consuming when it comes to one-on-one teaching and learning situations. For example, each student will be different when it comes to learning capabilities. If we take a particular instructional activity, we have to adjust it effectively to target appropriate level of challenge for each student.
According to research, adding structure and support to practice activities promotes learning and helps students practise the target skills at appropriate levels of challenge. This technique is called instructional scaffolding.
Time on task
Focusing on specific goals and having appropriate level of challenge are not sufficient for getting maximum productivity out of practice. Time spent by students is an important variable when it comes to productivity. Even if students are engaged in high-quality practice, they still need sufficient time to reap the benefits.
In our education system, practical constraints of time and resources often lead teachers to move quickly from concept to concept. It means that students will more or less get only one opportunity to practise each one. Students would need more time on each task to gain proficiency in each concept. It takes more than one opportunity to learn something new, especially if we want that knowledge to be retained across time and transferred across contexts.
Today, we discussed practice in-depth. We understood that learning is most effective when students get sufficient practice focused on a specific goal and at an appropriate level of challenge. In the next episode, we explore the importance of feedback in more detail.
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