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The Value of Practice

The January 2013 edition of the Association for Pyschological Science's journal has a great article about what impacts students' learning.  What they found is that certain techniques and strategies have a positive impact on students learning content (and should be continued) and that certain techniques and strategies have little to no impact on student learning (and should be stopped).

The strategies with little impact include summarizing content, highlighting, and rereading material and notes.

The strategies that had a positive impact were ones that fell into the category of taking practice tests.

Some may find those results surprising.  Strong AFL teachers shouldn't be surprised at all.  AFL teachers know that Memory is the Residue of Thought.  AFL teachers know that students and teachers need the feedback that comes from regular practice.  Teachers who, for example, have used regular Quia quizzes to prepare students and to gain benchmark data know and attest to the value of taking practice tests.

What was disturbing, though, was the finding that having students prepare/study by rereading notes and by using the highlighter method was more common than having students take regular practice assessments.

It's time to put away the highlighters and break out the practice tests!

Here is a link to the APS study:

RECOMMENDED READING: Here is a link to a post about the study found on the AJC Get Schooled blog:

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Last spring during our division's professional development day I attended a presentation led by Curtis Hicks and Mark Ingerson.  Their presentation was based on the book Why Students Don't Like School by author and cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham.  There was one statement in particular they shared from his book that really stuck with me.  In his book, Daniel Willingham says MEMORY IS THE RESIDUE OF THOUGHT.

Think about that statement for a moment - MEMORY IS THE RESIDUE OF THOUGHT.  All teachers are trying to get students to remember content.  If Willingham is correct, then we must first get students to THINK about content.  There can be no residue of thought if there isn't first thinking.

Reflect on your own classroom and teaching practices.  Is the truth behind this statement evident in your classroom?  I would contend that it's worth asking yourself the following question: "Am I doing enough to give students opportunities to THINK about my content?"

If it's true that MEMORY IS THE RESIDUE OF THOUGHT then the following statements are probably true as well:

  • The more one thinks on something, the more "residue" that is left.
  • More residue leads to greater memory of content.
  • Greater memory of content leads to an increase in learning.

As you're thinking about your classroom and how much opportunity for thought your students have, I think it's worth noting an important distinction.  There is a huge difference between LISTENING to content and THINKING about content.  

Students often listen to content and listen to information and we fool ourselves into believing they've been thinking about it just because they heard us.  However, we all know that there have been many times when we have been listening to or hearing a speaker while our thoughts were a million miles away.  Or maybe we have a few students who are engaged in a meaningful class discussion about the content, which also then fools us into thinking that our class as a whole was really thinking about the content.

If we want students to actually THINK about the content, then we need to structure activities IN class that require them to engage with the content, to form opinions, to use facts, and to apply.  We have to create opportunities to really think.  This concept applies to ALL levels of students.  Just because your students are IB or AP students who know how to sit and listen politely doesn't mean that they are thinking about your content.

This is where AFL comes in.  Strategies that are based on the philosophy of AFL are strategies that lead to students thinking about content and assessing their own understanding.  AFL strategies inherently lead to students THINKING about content.

As you head back to school from your Christmas/Winter break, consider what you can do this year to ensure that your students are actually thinking about content and building the residue that will lead to memory.  For AFL strategies and ideas that will help you accomplish this goal, check out right here on Assessment FOR Learning.

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