Is all practice good?

Posted on 22-01-2017

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.

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