Is all practice good?

This is part 3 of a series of blogs on my new book, Making Good Progress?: The future of Assessment for Learning. Click here to read the introduction to the series.

I can remember having a conversation with a friend a few years ago about the value of memorisation and practice. I said how important it was for pupils to remember things and to practice using them. She disagreed: she was sick to death of reading cookie-cutter, spoon-fed coursework essays that all sounded exactly the same, and all sounded as though they had regurgitated the words she had said in class in the lesson. For her, practice and memorisation were killing the life of her subject.

I completely recognised the truth of what she was saying. I had marked my fair share of coursework essays and felt exactly the same thing. So, why, if I am agreeing that this kind of practice is so damaging, am I still defending practice and memorisation?

For me, it is all about what we ask pupils to remember and to practise. If we ask pupils to write down their teacher’s thoughts on the opening of Great Expectations, memorise what they have written, and reproduce it in the exam, then we are not helping them to understand Great Expectations or come up with their own views on it.

But what if we ask pupils to remember the meanings of Tier Two vocab words? What if we ask them to memorise key quotations from Great Expectations? What if we ask them to practise and practise using the apostrophe? Is that just as damaging? I would argue that on the contrary, this kind of practice is really useful.

Something similar is true of maths. If a teacher asked a pupil to memorise the answers to problems like 372 * 487 and 657 * 432, it would seem very odd. But if you ask pupils to memorise the times tables, that’s much more understandable.

Why? Why is some content worth memorising, and why is some content not worth memorising?

Dan Willingham puts forward some really useful guidelines here. For him, there are three types of content particularly worth remembering and practising.

  • The core skills and knowledge that will be used again and again.
  • The type of knowledge that students need to know well in the short term to enable long-term retention of key concepts. In this case, short-term overlearning is merited.
  • The type of knowledge we believe is important enough that students should remember it later in life.

I would add one thing to the first bullet point. The type of core skills and knowledge that will be used again and again are often the fundamental building blocks of a subject. They are things that have been broken down and decontextualized, like times tables or the sounds that different letters make. Memorising these can seem inauthentic. It feels more meaningful to plunge straight in to real maths problems or real books. But the building blocks give you flexibility. If a pupil memorises a model essay on Great Expectations, that has no usefulness unless they are asked that one question. If they memorise 700 Tier Two words, those words have use in understanding Great Expectations, and in thousands of other contexts too.

One criticism of memorisation is that it drives out meaning. The next blog post will look at how we can make sure the things our pupils remember do have meaning.


One thought on “Is all practice good?

  1. eanelson2014

    “Fuzzy trace theory” (Reyna and Brainerd) suggests that there are two types of memory: gist and verbatim.
    Gist memory produces a fuzzy recollection or a summary of language or events. Gist memory occurs “naturally” to some extent because to have speech comprehension, which we all learn due to powerful instinct, we need to remember a summary of what people are saying as they speak.
    During language acquisition, a child’s brains record sentences they hear, and then as they hear them over time in distinctive contexts, develop an operational gist memory of the words and their meaning. Most language acquisition does not require flashcards because the brain figures out the meaning and rules for use automatically, by exposure. But that only works for the hisses, puffs, and grunts of language (see Pinker’s Language Instinct).
    But some knowledge requires exact “verbatim” memory. Math facts are an example. Or science word definitions. Kids have a good gist understanding of temperature, but not that “temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of molecules.” Verbatim memory is not instinctive, so it is more difficult to move into memory and requires from retrieval practice (drill such as a flashcard).
    I think what the research says (see Hirsch in The Knowledge Deficit, Wikipedia on Fuzzy Trace Theory, and Landauer/Dumais on Latent Semantic Analysis) is that memorizing vocabulary via flashcard is good for those verbatim definitions, but for kids to add a word to their instinctive speaking or writing vocabulary, where they need to understand the morphology, syntax, and semantics rules, they need to hear or read the word used in a variety of contexts.
    Sections of an informational text may benefit from writing the gist summaries. Dates, math and science definitions, math facts, and mnemonics need flashcards.
    An intuitive sense of when to apply algorithms in math seems to come from interleaved practice (solving different types of problems in a scrambled order), which is somewhat how children learn to apply syntax and semantics rules automatically prior to puberty, but math always and language after childhood does not come naturally.
    And the rules for what you need in memory to solve well-structured problems (lots of verbatim memory) are more agreed upon in cognitive science than how one solves ill-structured problems (Simon 1973, Tobias and Duffy 2009).
    All fun references — if you have time to read more.


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