Practice Makes Perfect? Maybe Not.
If you were asked to finish the phrase “Practice makes …” what is the first word that pops in your head? Did you say “perfect”? At least 99% of the people I have asked this question to in a professional development session of some sort have answered the same way. But is this really the case? Does more practice really make perfect? As teachers, we would hope so — at least that would justify assigning practice problems for homework most nights of the school week.
When I started my career as a middle school math teacher, I assigned the typical 20-25 homework problems per night. The standard rationale was that students needed to practice a particular algorithm or “rule” many times so the concept or steps would stick and be able to be recalled when needed.
It wasn’t until 10 years later (after 6 years teaching and 4 years developing online math curriculum) that this belief was challenged. I had never stopped to consider what was happening when the students were practicing the WRONG way! Sure, I had students who understood the concepts and were able to answer most of the homework problems correctly, but most of my students struggled. On any given night, the strugglers could have answered up to half or more of the problems incorrectly. We went over the answers and steps the next day in class, but by that time, the wrong way of solving the problem was more engrained in their brain because they had repeated that method over and over again without intervention or assistance. So, a more accurate phrase would be to say that “Practice makes PERMANENT.”
The research of Robert Marzano informs us that feedback is most effective when it is specific and timely. The “feedback” (if you want to call it that) I was providing my students by going over the answers and steps the next day was neither specific to their work nor timely. After this realization, I had a desire to go back and do it all over again! Here’s what I would have done differently:
There’s a lot of debate in the education space currently regarding homework; how much to give (if any at all), what kind of homework to assign, whether a grade (academic or behavior) should be tied to it, and so on. If the purpose of homework is for the student to practice the content with the end goal being mastery, and we know that feedback is most effective when it is timely and specific, then we should strive to find a balance between the two. If I could travel back in time, I would assign fewer homework problems (no more than five) and ensure that those problems are as comprehensive as possible. For example, instead of assigning all of the problems on page 35 (or just the even ones — because we all know the odd answers are in the back of the book!), choose or create 3-5 problems that include all of the steps/concepts learned in class and incorporate some real-world and writing components, as well.
Consider Virtual Feedback
There are countless software programs available that provide students with unique, standards-based practice problems – complete with scaffolded support when students need a hint or example and instant feedback on their answer selection. In my current position, I am tasked with reviewing and vetting the wide variety of programs currently on the market. It’s amazing how far the technology has come. If students have access to the programs (most are available on a variety of devices: computers, tablets, phones, etc.), why not utilize them to act as a stand-in teacher while students are practicing the content outside of the classroom?
Focus on Feedback
As stated earlier, if the goal of homework is for the student to practice the content, and we know that feedback is most effective when it is as timely and specific and possible, then let’s switch the focus from homework to classwork when the teacher is aware of what assistance is needed and available to provide immediate feedback. This practice is currently thought of as one form of formative assessment which, in simple terms, consists of providing students with a task or set of problems and immediately using the data from their performance to guide next steps. If the data shows students have mastered the concept, GREAT. Why ask the students to repeat that process 20-25 times that night for homework? However, and more importantly, if the data shows students haven’t mastered the concept, then asking them to repeat the incorrect process 20-25 times is going to make the problem worse.
Most students rely on their educators for support when in the process of mastering a concept. If I could travel back to my first year as a math teacher, I would re-think my methods to provide feedback in the moment. It’s important to ask yourself if your practices are yielding the best results possible. And, the next time you hear someone mention the familiar phrase “practice makes perfect,” you’ll know how to correct them!
Athena Matherly is a regular contributor to our blog and a former middle school math teacher. Currently, Athena is the Senior Manager of Innovations for Charter Schools USA.