John Jensen: Just One Teaching Tweak Can Mean Better Learning

Regardless of who you teach now or how you do it, one instructional change  can substantially increase learning. Even if you already teach well, chances are you have not tapped the potential of practice.

John Jensen, Ph.D.

An example. Imagine that a public event spurs a teacher (third grade or above) to discuss with her class the structure of government.  To conclude, she and the class identify the salient points and everyone together writes out a summary appropriate for their grade. Reflecting the issue’s importance, the teacher alerts students to a question for their final exam: Explain our founders’ intent in designing government as they did and how it is working out now. To make sure every student masters the answer perfectly, her plan is:

1.  Everyone understands the ideas.

2.  Everyone has a complete, written, hard copy of them.

3.  Everyone practices explaining them perfectly once.

4.  Everyone practices explaining them at expanding intervals: a day later, three days later, a week later, two weeks later, a month later, and on the final.

As she expected, on the final everyone answers the question perfectly. The single change leading to greater learning is that once children understand a correct answer and can explain it, they practice it at expanding intervals. In short, practice makes perfect. Change occurs as increments of practice generate new increments of learning. More time spent overall in practice matches more learning overall. As students practice more, they learn more. To make the point in reverse, if students are not learning, it is certain that they are not practicing their knowledge. Practice is the single activity deepening knowledge.

Since different classroom activities appear to lead to learning, we separate better from worse by identifying the element of practice they contain. Most present the mind with superficial familiarity. Some of it sticks while most evaporates. As the teacher tells and students listen over and over, surface knowledge comes and goes.  As students dutifully do assignments and then discard them, knowledge comes and goes. These common experiences are not practice. Approximations of it yield poor results.

A working definition is “repeating a skill in order to develop it.” Its two essential phases are input and output.

Input.  In order to practice an action repeatedly, you first must have it in mind. You do it once hesitantly just to get the raw idea.  No practice so far, just a bare grasp, an approximation. The mind perceives a model and forms a concept about future behavior, roughing in what will be done. To practice dribbling a ball, students first watch someone do it. Applying this to learning, input occurs as the teacher talks, students read, or students observe or participate in an action.

Output. A continuum of practice begins when one expresses the model outwardly, applying the impression the mind has received. Students “try it themselves.” As they do so repeatedly, their mind steadily modifies and adapts the concept toward smoother exercise of it. In sports or physical skills, one carries out in behavior the concept about the action. With ideas or knowledge, the concept itself is expressed verbally or in writing to output the idea gained.

Between those two steps lies an invisible process in which the mind converts sensory stimuli into thoughts. This invisible, internal conversion is the essence of learning. It is not like a message moving from one fax machine to another but more like a caterpillar changing to a butterfly, an intrinsic alteration of form.

That elusive metamorphosis occurs through practice. A child’s mind assigns meaning to the sensory signals at first roughly, linked only by a few neurological pathways to the child’s existing knowledge.  We do not say an idea once and expect a child to retain it permanently, but expect a process of development. Whenever the child expresses this particular piece or incorporates it into another, internal pathways deepen and broaden.  The piece becomes ever easier to bring forth, and intervals between inputs of the idea, during which the child sustains the knowledge, gradually lengthen.

To equip yourself with compelling details about this picture, 1) obtain a stopwatch, 2) add up all the time students practice their learning daily, 3) compare it to the amount of learning achieved, 4) increase the proportion of time spent in practice, and 5) note the increase in retained learning.

Quickly evident is the consistent relationship between more practice and more learning.  If we have learning at the 39th level and we want to take it to the 45th, the avenue before us is more practice; more input-output, more assimilating and expressing, more posing and answering questions, and more questions bigger and longer. The path is straightforward and reliable.

This is not to say that one specific activity suffices at all points. Once understanding the principle, you can thread students’ day through a mix of the following (after presentation and hard copy are done):  Students

  • answer rapid, brief questions you pose
  • answer rapid, brief questions a partner poses
  • answer longer questions a partner poses
  • answer questions learned today
  • answer questions learned a week ago
  • answer questions learned a month ago
  • answer questions from a different partner
  • explain the whole subject to a partner
  • explain the whole subject to a different partner
  • describe brief lessons in writing without help.
  • describe large sections in writing without help

To begin deepening knowledge, students first are familiar with it. They “have it” superficially. They obtained a source for correcting mistakes (their own hard copy), have output the answer at least once correctly, and now can output the answer repeatedly under varying conditions. Teachers’ habitual mistake is that at the very point where they could even begin to deepen the learning to permanence, right there instead they give up on it and proceed to the next lesson.

A few points may aid implementation:

1.  How hard is it to get good results?

While it’s very easy, three details endemically ignored make all the difference: 1) Bite off no more in one day than everyone can comprehend, 2) write it out so everyone has a hard copy, 3) and have everyone tell it back correctly that day.

From then on, all later practice is a victory march that feels easy, a celebration of competence at time intervals increasingly longer.  Class time is simple to arrange to achieve this. You might take a third of a class period to accomplish the steps above with a new piece of learning, and for the rest of the period deepen all prior learning.

2.  When do you know a given lesson has enough practice?  When do you quit on one piece?

You quit when the piece reaches your standard of mastery. Assuming you want the student to know it when the test comes, this implies reaching continuous conscious mastery as quickly as possible and staying there till the final examination.

3. How much should you teach at once?

The answer parallels eating.  Bite off one mouthful and chew it till you can swallow it. Then bite off another.  Don’t fill your mouth with unchewed bites or soon you either choke or spit out everything.

Understanding a facet of learning corrects this. Demanding more does not enable students to chew and swallow faster. Their capacity for assimilating new learning accommodates vast quantities but only at a certain pace: bite, chew, swallow. A practical standard is to get every prior lesson on track to permanent mastery before adding more. To accomplish this, as you begin a practice period, tell them, “Practice what you’re weakest on from everything we learned this week.” They know exactly what that is, and will move that material steadily ahead by explaining it to a partner, checking their hard copy when they need to. As you section your semester’s work into questions large and small, ask them to answer all questions back to the beginning of the term. They end the semester knowing everything.

If you are tempted to “save time” by shortcutting this process, note the parallel to assimilating a side of beef (half a cow). No matter how fast you want to do this, you hit a natural boundary. You can only absorb so much beef in one day. If you go hungry for a week, you can’t make it up by eating seven times as much on the eighth day.  But if you absorb each day’s meal in turn, a year later you have eaten the side of beef.

4.  Do we need higher standards?

Our theme suggests a different perspective on common core standards. It says that the issue is not defining the most important material. It is not whether you are teaching the most important material. It is not whether you teach what everyone else is teaching.  It is not whether you teach what can be tested so your school meets expectations. It is not whether your standards push  students adequately.

The issue instead is that at whatever you teach, you now waste enormous time, and most students quickly lose most of what they learn. The issue is not your standards but your methods.

5.  How you can tell students’ depth of learning?

Use time as an objective measure. If the student knows it now, you have achieved depth of knowledge quantifiable by the amount of time elapsed since he last looked at it.  If he did so a few minutes ago, depth remains at the surface. A last look at the material a day or two ago (cramming) departs just as fast. If the last look was several weeks ago and the student still has continuous conscious mastery, he has assimilated the material more deeply and need return to it only periodically to maintain it at that level. The number of days between the last look at the material and a current complete answer is an objective, expanding number that tells you comparable depth of knowledge.

Describing depth this way helps you know what to do about it: practice it thoroughly so that the number of days it is sustained expands. You want more time between the last review of the material and a student’s current ability to answer completely until he has it for good.

More practice equals more learning retained.  Practice makes perfect.

The first book of John Jensen’s three-book Practice Makes Permanent series was issued February 22 by Rowman and Littlefield, titled Teaching Students To Work Harder and Enjoy It: Practice Makes Permanent. Readers interested in previewing the second book due out in mid-summer, titled Changing Attitudes and Behavior: Practice Makes Permanent, can contact him at [email protected]

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 [email protected]
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