John Jensen: Mastering Practice, Teaching’s Key Tradeoff

by John Jensen, PhD

A tradeoff lies in how you use class time. Less of this, more of that, and you get different results. If you ever studied the piano, you’ll understand.

Let’s say your mother resolved to provide piano lessons for you and your brother, but from different teachers. Yours required an hour of practice a day and your mother had to sign off on it. Your brother’s teacher instead relied on “motivation.”  She believed that his interest was the key, and to encourage it she taught music appreciation, played music for your brother, told stories about musicians, gave background on musical forms, but never required him to practice anything.

After a year of lessons, which of you could play the piano better, you or your brother?

We know the answer from one simple measure. All we need to know is which of you practiced more. By some remote chance, maybe your brother was inspired to go to the piano on his own and begin to learn it.  Maybe the key spurring him to discipline himself through the difficulties of learning was exactly what his teacher supplied but it’s an unlikely outlier.

Probably instead, your daily hour of practice vaulted you far ahead of your brother.  Practice gave you confidence that you could learn. You noticed weekly improvement and that you were causing it by your practice. Progress built on itself.  As your repertoire expanded, you realized ever more keenly that you could do piano, a thought that never crossed your brother’s mind—yet, anyway.  Given comparable innate ability student to student,  the bottom line for learning the piano is that progress is directly proportionate to the quality and quantity of practice.

Here we have a standard insight about progress, applying across the entire spectrum of human skill. Practice determines eventual competence, and turning to knowledge with this principle in mind, we would like to discern how to translate it into classroom time-use. In the standard U.S educational environment, can we expect the principle that works everywhere else to apply also to academics? Will learning still correlate with the amount and quality of practice?

Let’s say you answer no.  If so, why?  How could you assert that?

Maybe you believe that your enthusiasm or assignments or classroom activities supply something beyond practice, that they replace it.

Actually such influences don’t. They are incentives for or means of practice but do not replace it. They set practice in motion, but do not substitute for it.  In fact we can assess every classroom activity for what we might call “the practice element,” a quality telling us that practice occurs. Something changes activity from a use of time about knowledge into the practice of knowledge.

To discern the difference, we examine the role of practice. As referred to here it is the repeated outward expression of an inward model.  The key realization is that practice begins after its inward model is robust enough to answer a teacher’s question about it. A teacher presents something and asks a question here and there to assure herself that she got across what she intended.  By then, students as yet have had no practice, but have barely installed in their mind the model of the knowledge they need to express, and the teacher has barely affirmed that she has handed the model over to them.  The input phase has occurred, but practice itself begins with the output phase by students.

Instead of this effective second step, what we see most commonly is teachers themselves continuing to practice the knowledge at hand. They explain and re-explain to all. They re-explain one to one to students who don’t get it.  They answer questions. They try to anticipate questions and answer them ahead of time. They practice their knowledge hourly but usually at students as their talk re-exposes student minds to the repeated input of knowledge.

Students themselves begin practice only when the arrow of action reverses. After ideas have come in, students then express them outgoing, needing four to five times as long talking as they formerly spent listening. If the teacher’s time is the first 10-15 minutes for  input, the remaining 40-50 minutes should be the students’ turn for practice. With teacher’s time, students grasp the new material initially. With their time, they internalize it.

The internalizing activity for any skill is typically performing the action thoughtfully. Knowledge has an activity of its own, which is explaining. The mind receives an approximate model of the knowledge and practice occurs by expressing, discussing, or writing it. The outward expression of knowledge already grasped I refer to here as “the practice element.”  Its significance is that the degree of the practice element in an activity determines its value for learning. Let’s list the practice element in common classroom activities and then consider each more deeply:

Teacher explains = zero practice element.

Students ask questions of the teacher = minimal practice element

Teacher assigns written questions = minimal practice element

Teacher asks scattered questions = medium practice element

Students write out their knowledge = medium to high practice element

Teacher gives pop quiz = high practice element

Students do Q and A practice with partner = high practice element

Students perform their learning = high practice element

Students run all their learning as mental movie = high practice element

Students explain the course back to the beginning = high practice element

While your personal approach to these activities may incorporate more practice than I note as the norm, the continuum between the first and last stages contains the key insight.

1.  Teacher explaining has zero practice element. Practice requires output of an inner model, but this experience is the opposite.  The teacher does all the output and students  receive it. This is particularly telling since teachers appear generally to do 2/3 to 4/5 of the talking in most classrooms. Students’ minds often go into triage, dismissing what the teacher has already said in order to listen to what she says now. From a long presentation, students may retain almost nothing.

The practice element lies in the effort to express the knowledge, so whoever exerts that effort  is the one practicing the knowledge. For this reason, teachers “learn a subject by teaching it.”  They do the input/output cycle over and over—week by week, year by year. And if the teacher uses 70% of classroom time to talk, 30% at best remains for students to divide up.  Do the math.  70% of a 50 minute period is 35 minutes for teacher time, leaving 15 minutes to apportion to students. With 15 students in the class, they would each have one minute or with 30 students a half minute if time were divided equally. In practice, the dominant ones hold the floor while those needing it most remain silent, and most of their comments anyway are short enough to deliver by Twitter.

This is not to discount teacher talk, which often is the most effective way to convey new material.  But once it’s delivered, further teacher talk pre-empts the time students need for practice. With inadequate practice time, their learning remains surface, dependent on the random movements of their attention..

2.  Students asking questions of the teacher offers minimal practice element. While an individual student may benefit by calling up assorted data pieces from within, the effect for the class overall is that of someone else explaining, adding details to the input phase. And because student questions rely on student initiative, the teacher cannot rely on them to deepen learning for all.  They typically clarify what the teacher has presented, and hence draw on information current in the classroom.

3.  Teacher assigns questions students answer in writing by referring to the Internet, a textbook, or a handout. Since they typically respond by transferring knowledge from one spot to another, they may draw little on their own retained knowledge, leaving this activity with a minimal practice element. They look up anything, cut and paste, and track ideas organized on a basis other than their own thought, often just plugging unassimilated data into an assignment structure.  Search-and-collect may help them form knowledge and so offers minimal practice, but they typically dismiss it just when they could actually use the written form for practice in depth.

4. Teacher asking scattered questions of students offers medium practice element.  When questions follow right after a teacher presentation, the goal is often just maintaining attention and checking understanding rather than an opportunity for in-depth practice of the content. Only one student answers the teacher at once, while everyone else listens. Deferring questions to the next day  may help, but teacher-questioning allows only a few students to answer on selected points while the remainder coast. The benefit of answering a question is not spread evenly among all students nor all ideas.

5.  Students write summaries, essays, notes, and syntheses of their learning. This has a medium to high practice element. Thorough note-taking during a presentation calls both on understanding what’s presented and processing it into a summary form—potentially at least a medium practice element.

The most challenging practice arises from students writing while drawing just on what they have already learned from all their sources. As the assignment asks less of them, it relies more on their skills in search-and-copy. As they merely string together what they collect, the practice element diminishes.  Since this tool can be used constantly with all kinds of learning, however, it remains an important option.

6.  Teacher gives a pop quiz. Expression is confined to the limits of the questions, but the quiz at least elicits prior learning so that practice is involved. Its value is minimized when  used only to assess students rather than help them deepen their knowledge. Because it challenges students’ retention, it has high practice element although perhaps of limited value because employed infrequently.

7.  Teacher breaks information into questions and answers and asks students to explain them to a partner until both know them. Here finally is clear-cut input and output.  Presentation has already occurred and knowledge gathered. The teacher has made the information understandable and arranged it in a form suitable for practice. Students explain it to each other.  They develop a mental model and then express it repeatedly to deepen and expand it.

Such practice also offers a logical end-point that encourages efficient time-use: “You’re done when you can explain it back anytime without looking.” In this high practice element activity, every minute spent at it deepens knowledge, and teachers can draw on it briefly or at length. It works with both new and familiar material, and deepens knowledge probably better than any other activity.

8.  Teacher utilizes knowledge learned for daily performances of learning.  A student name and a question are drawn randomly, and the student stands and answers impromptu.  This activity leverages the value students place on peer opinion and admiration, and generates zest and interest. It has a high practice element, works with knowledge at all levels of sophistication, offers much stimulation with little time spent, and motivates partner practice.

9.  Teacher conducts Mental Movie.  Students close their eyes and review the day’s learning minute by minute. In this high practice element activity, they “run the film” of their day, bringing to mind everything they can recall. They discover the power of their mind to record with increasing detail each activity of their day.

Teachers need not worry that children will waste time if their eyes are closed. They love to exert effort in socially valued ways. This one matters because it expands their ability to practice and perform their knowledge in front of peers, and helps especially with subjects containing visual structures such as math and science.  Observable forms, relationships, and sequences are absorbed as imagination paints them.

The more time teachers require in medium and high practice element activities, the more practice students obtain per hour, and the deeper they learn. The more they do this, the easier the teacher’s responsibility becomes. If we cease extinguishing knowledge, understand the power of steady accumulation, and use students’ time to arrange for them to practice properly, their learning cannot fail to take off.

John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and author of the three-volume Practice Makes Permanent series (Rowman and Littlefield). He will send a proof copy of the volumes to anyone on request:

John Jensen, Ph.D.
John Jensen is a licensed clinical psychologist and education consultant. His three volume Practice Makes Perfect Series is in publication with Rowman and Littlefield, education publishers. The first of the series due in January is Teaching So Students Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Perfect. He welcomes comments sent to him directly at