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Does Practice Make Perfect?

Experts in literacy stress to teachers and students strategies that good readers utilize while reading. They include making predictions, using context clues, rereading, monitoring comprehension, etc.. Therefore it makes sense to have students practices those strategies while they are reading many times with different types of texts. The book that I am reading, Why Don’t Students Like School?, by Daniel T. Willingham includes a chapter entitled, “Is drilling worth it?”.  In this chapter Willingham raises the question, “Is practice beneficial?”

Few of us would argue that typical “drill and kill” activities tend to kill students’ motivation.   Yet others argue that one must practice the basic facts and skills that they need at their fingertips.  I tend to agree that asking students to practice a skill over and over again is not the best use of my or my students’ time.  Yet, how do those low level, basic processes and skills become automatic without killing a student’s motivation to learn?

In other words, how did my son learn to do a one-legged takedown where now after 9 years he does it without thinking?

Willingham states, “Less obvious reasons to practice skills is when it appears that you have mastered something and it’s not obvious that practice is making you any better.”  He states that there are three important reasons to continue practicing:

  1. Reinforces the basic skills that are required for the learning of more advanced skills.
  2. It protects against forgetting
  3. It improves transfer

Which makes sense, again, thinking about my oldest and wrestling, he knows the basic 1-legged take down, and continues to build upon that basic take down with more advanced moves, sometimes we notice that he doesn’t always complete the take down (which would mean he might be forgetting the basics), and that same basic move can be used in other sports, such as football, and we have seen him do this!

So back to Willingham’s question, “Is practice worth it?” he would argue that it does, when it is for one of the three reasons, reinforcement, protection against forgetting, and for transfer.

I would agree based on something I recently heard regarding homework from Doug Fisher.  He stated that the only homework that is assigned in his school is homework that is based upon a skill or concept that has not be recently introduced (more than 3 days), students have shown mastery through some type of formative assessment, and is a spiral review, (e.g. a a teacher may assign something from September, October and January in February).  When homework is held to this kind of criteria, it satisfies the each of the three conditions for practice stated by Willingham.  So practice does make perfect…as long as it is NOT 100 2-digit multiplication problems (odd only) that were introduced that day!  What kind of homework are you or your students assigned?

2 Comments

  1. Sue Longcor wrote:

    The title of this article reminds me of one of my favorite “one liners”…
    “Practice doesn’t make perfect..it makes PERMANENT.” (Unfortunately, I can’t remember who I’m quoting!) In other words, if I practice a skill many times, I will perform the skill as I learned it. If I mastered it incorrectly, it will be very difficult to un/relearn it. I think Willingham and Fisher would say that practicing correctly is an unspoken “given” in their three criteria, but I think it bears explicit attention.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2009 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  2. Drinda Williams wrote:

    I agree that meaningful spiral practice is necessary for maintaining and honing skills. Homework is one way to accomplish this. Doug Fisher talked about the “test prep” that many schools do in order to get their students ready for accountability assessments. The spiral review done in his school is a way to address that without taking up valuable class time. Another way to provide meaningful spiral review is with careful planning of classroom learning opportunities. A teacher who is designing a rigorous and relevant learning experience can make sure students will need to use skills previously taught in order to complete the work. It is all about making work–in class or homework–purposeful.

    Saturday, August 15, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

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