The Role of Practice in a Post-Memorization World

When you hear the word “practice,” what comes to mind? For me, I’m reminded of the 1000s of hours I spent swimming back and forth in a pool when I was younger, practicing my technique and speed, and building up my endurance to achieve personal and team goals. This memory brings back feelings of joy and excitement and reminds me how much I love being in the water. While I definitely don’t have the speed anymore, the habits and techniques I developed 20 years ago are instilled in me.

Now here’s a second example: Practice also reminds me of a high school math class I had and the hours and hours I spent memorizing formulas and practicing problems. This memory is different. I liked math at the time (ok, “like” might be strong, but I didn’t hate it.), but now I’m annoyed and frustrated just thinking about it. Why is my reaction so different from that of practicing swimming? Both practices were challenging and frustrating at times.

In these examples, there are at least two things that I had in swimming, that I didn’t have in math class: 1) clearly defined and personally meaningful goals and 2) authentic and relevant ways to practice. In swimming, I wanted to qualify and do well at the Jr. Olympics. I had my goal times written on poster board and hanging above my bed. I was dedicated and committed to seeing what I was capable of. I practiced with purpose and through competitions. In math, I liked problem-solving, but I was mostly driven by the pressure to keep my GPA up so I could get into a good college. I didn’t know why I was learning most of the math or how I would ever use it in the future to do something I cared about. These goals were short-term and extrinsic, so, like many students, I practiced to do well on tests, not to get better at the skills. I never had opportunities to practice math by solving meaningful or authentic problems. Instead, we were given generic problems or corny, outdated, or irrelevant word problems from a text book. As a result, I couldn’t solve a complex math problem today without a lot of help.

Practice is an essential part of learning, so how can we provide learners with the right kinds of practice, no matter what the subject is? How can practice feel more like swimming did to me, and not my high school math class? Here are some recommendations that emerged from our research on the topic:

  1. Help learners set personally meaningful goals and understand how practicing specific skills will help them achieve those goals. Practice is most beneficial when learners are motivated to achieve a specific goal (1). Practice should directly help learners accomplish something they care about or a long-term goal. Academic materials are often not inherently related to longer-term goals and this connection must be clear for practice to be effective.
  2. Ask learners to practice a skill in authentic situations. Authenticity provides context and purpose for practicing. Effective ways to practice skills are through problem-based learning (2) and collaborating with experts or the community. Learners should practice with purpose. If learners do not see the relevance or if the relevance is simply to cover a Common Core Standard, prepare for a test, etc., it will not be an effective form of practice or useful to the learner.
  3. Provide multiple avenues and pathways for practicing skills. Developing and maintaining skills takes time and requires learners to make sense of different types of knowledge, work with experts, work alone, and develop flexible routines (3).
  4. Scaffold and support self-reflection during practice. Noticing and being self-aware are a part of practicing and reflection is essential for deep learning. Reflection is the process of turning experience into learning (4) (5). It is what shifts surface learning to deep learning (6). Reflection should occur during three occasions: 1) prior to an event, 2) in the midst of action, and 3) after events.
  5. Provide learners with immediate feedback and knowledge of their performance (1) (7). More repetition will not lead to improvements or skill acquisition if learners aren’t getting feedback and making adjustments. Practice is more effective when monitored by an expert. One-on-one is more effective than group practice for many skills. Feedback is effective in combination with individual practice and performance (using the skills to accomplish a goal).

These guidelines will help keep practice meaningful to learners and can help keep them from purely being motivated by grades or other extrinsic rewards. Help learners practice with purpose, so they carry the skills and knowledge forward into their lives.

1. Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406.

2. Barell, J. (2010). Problem-based learning: The foundation for 21st century skills. In J. Bellanca & R. Brandt (Eds.), 21st Century Skills: Rethinking How Students Learn (pp. 175–200). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

3. Hopwood, M. J., Macmahon, Farrow, D., & Baker, J. (2015). Is practice the only determinant of sporting expertise? Revisiting Starkes (2000). International Journal of Sport Psychology, 46, 631–651.

4. Boud, D. (2001). Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice. In Promoting Journal Writing in Adult Education (pp. 9–18). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

5. Schon, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

6. Moon, J. (1985). Reflection in learning and professional development: Theory and practice. London: Kogan Page.

7. Charness, N., Tuffiash, M., Krampe, R., Reingold, E., & Vasyukova, E. (2005). The role of deliberate practice. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 19, 151–165.