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Small, Frequent Practice Makes Permanent

Mon Jan 14, 2019 at 07:30 AM

For more on the content presented in this CETL Teaching Tip, watch the “Practice Make Permanent” video (Week 1) in the Learning How to Learn MOOC, featuring OU engineering professor Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski, UC San Diego biological studies professor.

“Practice makes perfect” is an axiom for a reason: the brain has a remarkable capacity when knowledge or actions are repeated many times. But it is more accurate and useful to revise this saying to “practice makes permanent,” since practice only ensures that what you practice will be solidified in your mind by paving permanent neural pathways in your brain.

This amazing brain ability is only possible if something is practiced under three conditions: in small measure, often, and over time. The neurons involved in learning something have to trek a path many times and allow time in between “treks” in order to let the learning solidify. It’s like building a brick wall: it has to be done brick by brick, with time for the binding mortar to solidify before adding more bricks. Without time to settle, the wall will be nothing but a messy heap.

What does this mean for students? Procrastination does not work well. The brain that has procrastinated might be able to hold onto a random chunk of knowledge over a short period of time, but not enough to remember most of it past a week. The college learning environment often sets students up to procrastinate.

What does this mean for faculty? The college learning environment teaches students that learning happens in large chunks when the syllabus only lists large projects and reading assignments, or when we instruct students to “read the next five chapters by next week.” Even if we do not want to structure every learning experience for students, the way we word assignment directions, structure readings, scaffold projects, and discuss work management with students can make a significant impact in how well students do in our courses and beyond.

How to Design Small, Frequent Practice in Your Classes

1. Evaluate the course for small, frequent practice.

Identify the most important concepts or skills (3-5) students must learn to succeed in the course. Evaluate how often students are actively practicing and applying those concepts using these questions:

  • How many times is this practiced?
  • In how many ways is this practiced?
  • How frequently is this practiced?
  • Over what span of time is this practiced?

Be as specific as possible in your answers. The concept is likely practiced intensively during one week in which you are “covering” it, but identify if it is brought back into future weeks. These significant concepts will need to be introduced early in the semester in order to build many layers in the “brick wall.”

Reading and listening to lectures does not count as practice, but working out a practice problem within a reading or posing a problem within a lecture, in observable ways, does count as practice. 

2. Embed small, frequent practice into lectures.

Provide an opportunity for students to test their ability to use the knowledge you are providing. This can be accomplished in very small ways, but they should give every student some form of feedback. For example, an open class discussion question only practices the knowledge of students who volunteer an answer, but requiring all students to spend 30 seconds writing an answer requires students to compare their response to the class discussion and your answer.

3. Embed small, frequent practice into reading.

Reading is a major learning responsibility faculty place on their students in order for students to come to class prepared to learn. But students’ reading practices are often not conducive to learning. In short, they passively move over the words without checking their understanding, which can be called the “illusion of competence,” or believing they know it because they have “read” it. There are many simple, but powerful ways to make sure students are benefiting from the reading:

  • Require completion of practice activities in the textbook. These are often designed specifically for learning, but ask your students how often they do these on their own!
  • Use “Check Your Understanding” quizzes. Use a few questions to test students’ ability to recall definitions, translate ideas to different contexts, and compare multiple concepts in the reading. These can be low-stakes so that grading is minimal or complete/incomplete.
  • Assign end-of-reading summaries, with a class preparation question

These measures will require some form of “checking” on your part, but this can be a minimal effort with maximum reward. Helena Riha, linguistics faculty at OU, provides a model for this type of reading accountability in her larger courses.  

Save and adapt a Google Doc version of this teaching tip.

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Oakland University. Photo by Jarrod Reed on Unsplash. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC.

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