I sometimes think about sport when thinking about learning. In this case, basketball and shooting a hoop. It’s one part of the game but an essential one. Practising shooting is important as when you get the ball it’s a chance to score. Leaving it to chance would seem foolish. Being able to do it once in a while isn’t good enough otherwise we might all be in our national basketball team! It needs to have a high rate of success, through regular practice. A player needs to do the same thing, over and over. That’s what makes a great player.
This however isn’t what some people have thought or do think learning is about. Doing the same thing over and over in class has been frowned upon. I am saddened to say that in the past I have been a victim of ‘your lesson didn’t show progress because they didn’t learn something new’ but also, was made to tell others the same when I observed them. Something instinctively told me it was nonsense at the time but I didn’t have the evidence to the contrary nor was I likely to change things as it was what ‘Ofsted wanted’.
But now, not only do I think that it is essential to progress, it is part of what makes learning itself. There are many ways to make progress but in my opinion, one important way is that you can do something again and again and maintain a high standard, over a period of time
This is where some teaching goes wrong. The classic example is that in maths during a lesson, students are taught how to solve equations. They can all do it and do lots of practice during the lesson, the teacher then thinks ‘we’ve done equations’ and that’s it. They then wonder why in the future they can’t do it. Students need to practise the same type of equations, over and over, over a long period of staggered time (see research on spacing).
It seems sensible to think that if a student can repeat something then progress has been made. But how many times until you can confidently say that it is ‘learned’? Rawson and Dunlosky (2011) in ‘Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: how much is enough?’ suggest…
On the basis of the overall patterns of durability and efficiency, our prescriptive conclusion for students is to practice recalling concepts to an initial criterion of 3 correct recalls and then to relearn them 3 times at widely spaced intervals.
This has huge implications for those that teach a topic and move on, never for it to appear again until revision. The problem is teachers will say they don’t have time to do these repetitions. Rawson and Dunlosky (2012) explore durability and efficiency; we need to be able to do this using a minimal amount of time yet be as effective as possible. They call this process ‘distributed test–restudy’. The restudy is important. You cannot just teach/practise it once and hope it sticks. It will only work for a few students. Their research suggests certain amounts of practice testing and relearning improves overall learning.
Ideally we need to explain this to our students, and then use a similar model in our curriculum. If we struggle for time, homework can be used. In fact, I believe this is the best way homework can be used at secondary. Also, when doing pieces of work in written subjects, we shouldn’t be afraid to do the same thing, again and again. Without complicating it or adding anything to it, just repeating to get it right. One way I’ve been doing this is explained in this blog.
So, if you still have observations and someone wants to see something ‘new’ to prove students have made progress, send them to these links below and maybe mention basketball hoops.
Rawson, K. A., & Dunlosky, J. (2011). Optimizing schedules of retrieval practice for durable and efficient learning: How much is enough? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 140(3), 283-302.
Rawson, K.A. & Dunlosky, J. (2012) When Is Practice Testing Most Effective for Improving the Durability and Efficiency of Student Learning Educ Psychol Rev (2012) 24: 41