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Does Practice Make Perfect?

Practice refers to learners repeating a motor or cognitive skill over time. It begins with the rehearsal of the new skill in working memory. Later, the skill memory is recalled, and additional practice follows. The quality of the practice and the learner’s knowledge base will largely determine the outcome of each practice session.

The old adage that “practice makes perfect” is rarely true. It is very possible to practice the same skill repeatedly with no increase in achievement or accuracy of application. Think of the people you know who have been driving, cooking, or even teaching for many years with no improvement in their skills. Why is this? How is it possible for one to continually practice a skill with no resulting improvement in performance?

Conditions for Successful Practice

For practice to improve performance, four conditions must be met (Hunter, 2004):

  1. The learner must be sufficiently motivated to want to improve performance. If the learner has not attached meaning to the topic, then motivation is low.
  2. The learner must have all the knowledge necessary to understand the different ways that the new knowledge or skill can be applied.
  3. The learner must understand how to apply the new knowledge to deal with a particular situation.
  4. The learner must be able to analyze the results of that application and know what needs to be changed to improve performance in the future.

Guided Practice, Independent Practice, and Feedback

Practice may not make perfect, but it does make permanent, thereby aiding in the retention of learning. Consequently, we want to ensure that students practice the new learning correctly from the beginning. This early practice that is done in the presence of the teacher (referred to as guided practice), who can now offer immediate and corrective feedback to help students analyze and improve their practice. When the practice is correct, the teacher can then assign independent practice (usually homework) in which the students can rehearse the skill on their own to enhance retention. This strategy leads to perfect practice, and, as coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Teachers should avoid giving students independent practice before guided practice. Because practice makes permanent, allowing students to rehearse a mathematical operation for the first time while away from the teacher is very risky. If they unknowingly practice the skill or procedure incorrectly, then they will learn the incorrect method well! This will present serious problems for both the teacher and learner later on because it is very difficult to change a skill that has been practiced and remembered, even if it is not correct. Furthermore, the student gets frustrated and annoyed at having spent personal time outside of school practicing a skill incorrectly and loses the motivation to learn the process correctly. This frequent occurrence contributes to unfavorable attitudes toward mathematics.

Unlearning and Relearning a Skill or Process. If a learner practices a mathematical process incorrectly but well, unlearning and relearning that process correctly is very difficult. The degree to which the unlearning and relearning processes are successful will depend on the

  • Age of the learner (i.e., the younger, the easier to relearn)
  • Length of time the skill has been practiced incorrectly (i.e., the longer, the more difficult to change)
  • Degree of motivation to relearn (i.e., the greater the desire for change, the more effort that will be used to bring about the change).

In any event, both teacher and student have a difficult road ahead to unlearn the incorrect method and relearn it correctly.

Massed and Distributed Practice

Hunter (2004) suggested that teachers use two different types of practice over time. (Hunter uses practice to include rehearsal.) Practicing a new learning during time periods that are very close together is called massed practice. This produces fast learning, as when one mentally rehearses a multiplication table. Immediate memory is involved here, and the information can fade in seconds if it is not rehearsed quickly.

Teachers of mathematics provide massed practice when they allow students to try different examples of applying a new formula or concept in a short period of time, say, within one classroom period. Cramming for an exam is an example of massed practice. Material can be quickly chunked into working memory, but can also be quickly dropped or forgotten if more sustained practice does not follow soon. This happens because the material has no further meaning, and thus the need for long-term retention disappears.

Sustained practice over time, called distributed practice, is the key to retention. If you want to remember a multiplication table later on, you will need to use it repeatedly over time. Thus, practice that is distributed over longer periods of time sustains meaning and consolidates the learnings into long-term storage in a form that will ensure accurate recall and applications in the future.

Effective practice, then, starts with massed practice for fast learning and proceeds to distributed practice later for retention. As a result, the student is continually practicing previously learned skills throughout the year(s). Each test should not only test new material but also allow students to practice important older learnings. This method not only helps in retention, but it also reminds students that the learnings will be useful for the future and not just for the time when they were first learned and tested. That was the rationale behind the idea of the spiral curriculum, whereby critical mathematical facts and skills are reviewed at regular intervals within and over several grade levels. Whatever happened to it?

References:

Hunter, M. (2004). Mastery teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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