Making practice work

Divya Choudary

‘Riyaaz’ or practice leads to perfection. There’s obviously some truth to this idea. When you do something often you do get better at it. Sports coaches and music teachers tend to agree.

Farooq, a physical education coach, found that his students loved to play, but practice? Not so much. “Students”, he says, “don’t come to class knowing how to practice. They have to learn it.” So he makes it a point to involve the students when planning the structure of the practice sessions and takes the time to explain the reason behind certain exercises, the “goals” involved in each stage of practice, and the effort that will need to be put in. “You have to give feedback at every stage,” he adds. Students can keep logs of their practice sessions to keep track of their progress. While positive feedback and words of encouragement keeps them motivated, it is “constructive criticism” that gets them to train better. Some students practice because their parents insist. Some love the fruit of their efforts – being able to shoot a three pointer, or swim a whole length without assistance. As a coach, you have to encourage the players to practice without being overbearing.Adults Inflatable Obstacle Course

Dr. Adam Fraser, Australian educator and researcher in the area of human performance writes, “When we practice a repetitive task – e.g., golf swings, kick, dive, or sprinting – over and over again, this movement is embedded in our procedural memory. Each time we practice a movement it becomes more natural and smooth.”

The same holds true for music. Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers writes about Mozart popularizing the theory that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice would allow a person to master the skill and become an “expert”. Whether it is singing or playing an instrument, the results are tangible. Practice longer and you will be able to bring a slow piece up to tempo or reach that high note that was eluding when you started out.

But what happens when this “practice” is brought into the classroom?

Students are often made to re-work the same math problems or re-write the same word over and over till they have the spelling down cold. The focus here seems to be on “practicing till the response becomes automatic.” As teachers, one needs to consider what proficiencies students really gain by this? Are intellectual processes simply a matter of behavioural responses?

Sriparna, who taught in Krishnamurti Foundation schools for 15 years, says, “Practice should be about ‘concept’ and not ‘mechanical registration’. It should give the students an opportunity to construct and discover through application the concept learned in class. In language, vocabulary for instance, there is no denying that there is a certain amount of drill that is necessary. But a teacher can go beyond mechanical dictation by providing different kinds of experiences, like crosswords or quizzes, or asking the students to write a skit using the words learned in class.” While designing lesson plans and worksheets in English and Social Science, Sriparna ensures that the emphasis remains on innovation and understanding while reinforcing the concepts dealt with in the classroom.

As any good teacher knows, all students do not learn in the same way. It is also common for a class of students to be at different levels of understanding/competence in any particular subject. Because of this, teachers need to use different teaching methods in order to reach all students effectively. Practice is more effective when distributed in small doses over several days or weeks (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Practice is also more effective when customized to the individual’s needs and ability to grasp. My math teacher Usha, used to give each of us a different worksheet after every new topic covered in class. We thought it was to keep us from copying! Now looking back, she had obviously taken into consideration our individual learning capabilities and given us work that helped each of us engage with the subject and learn at our own pace.

Thejaswi, a teacher at Centre for Learning, Bengaluru, believes that practice is essential in subjects that deal with core skills, such as numeracy and literacy. “In a school like CFL, without exams, exercises and assignments are an integral part of the programme. To improve students’ competence we give them assignments that are process-oriented and that encourage critical-thinking.” Practice at CFL is concept-oriented. Students are encouraged to be “open-minded” when solving problems. The answers obtained matter less than the thought-process behind solving the problem. It is the children who don’t grasp the underlying concepts who most need practice that is geared towards a deeper understanding.

While many students find these assignments tougher and more time-consuming than the conventional ones, these assignments serve as a means for the students to understand their own level of learning. As a teacher, Srijaya Char believes that practice assignments not only give students an opportunity to “perfect something that is already learned” by allowing them to test themselves and apply what they’ve learned but also enables teachers to get feedback on their own competence in teaching.

Practice exercises that are designed to encourage students to follow the step-by-step procedure leave little room for discovery and understanding. Jayashree, a retired science teacher says, “Students might be able to memorize the steps for reducing fractions to the lowest common denominator or perfectly balance a chemical equation without understanding the significance of what they’re doing. Good “practice” must give them the bigger picture. Students must be able to take these methods and use them in problems in a different context or in real life scenarios.”

Practice may lead to perfection but learning how to practice and learning how to teach ‘practice’ are equally important.

Marzano RJ, Pickering DJ, Pollock JE. Classroom Instruction That Works: Research-Based Strategies for Increasing Student Achievement. Alexandria: ASCD; 2001. 140 p.

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