4. Deliberate Practice

Resources, ideas and prompts for discussion related to Deliberate Practice and retrieval based tasks

So that…pupils have the opportunity to improve performance through sustained effort.

What is Deliberate Practice and Retrieval and why are they important?

In ‘Practice Perfect’, Doug Lemov points out that practice doesn’t just make perfect but ‘practice makes permanent’. What we practice we get good at, and better retain the associated knowledge and skills in the process. Take the additional view of American Football Coach, Vince Lombardi, that “only perfect practice makes perfect” and we can appreciate that the quality of practice can be a key limiting factor. The frustration felt with the lack of results obtained in tests, essays or coursework can be rooted in the issue of a lack of rigorous and structured practice.

Types of practice

Broadly speaking we can refer to two main types of practice:

  • Practice for Fluency – As outlined by Willingham in ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ this means that knowledge and processes are very well consolidated in long-term memory and can be recalled with ease. The key building blocks of your subject should be practised to this level, as without this knowledge you would struggle with any form of application/questions in varying contexts (think along the lines of times tables, what is a simile, mutations in language etc.).
  • Deliberate Practice – This form of practice involves more struggle, requires sustained effort to achieve the goal and we get better while using feedback though the process. We keep at something, revisiting it, until it has been mastered.

Achieving independence

Ultimately we would wish for learners to reach a level of independence so that they can apply and recall information without extensive support. This transition from guided practice to independent practice can be viewed as a continuum and how long it takes for teachers to gradually reduce the level of guidance depends on individual classes and groups. In order to make independence a more likely outcome we should follow techniques that mirror those explained in the modelling section of the website:

  • Ensure a certain level of confidence through guided practice, instruction and support first. Don’t remove the stabilisers too soon!
  • Move on to tasks or questions that are similar to the guided practice but with gradual removal of teacher support. At this point learners could collaborate by practising with peers.
  • Perform the usual checks on answers and quality assure whether the ‘fluency’ is developing (are they getting things correct and avoiding misconceptions?).
  • Allow students to work on more questions or tasks themselves and encourage them to begin to self-check work using mark schemes/answer sheets/exemplars (this further reduces the direct teacher guidance).
  • Over time increase the challenge; for example attempting more questions, working at a higher pace, more difficult problems, writing extended pieces, synoptic questions etc.

Allison and Tharby use a lovely analogy to express their views on where practice ‘fits’ in teaching and learning:

“If challenge, modelling and explanation provide the ingredients for learning, practice is the oven in which it is baked”

Allison and Tharby – Chapter 4 Practice ‘Making Every Lesson Count’

The pages in this section explore ideas, resources and approaches linked to practice (some lean more towards supporting fluency, others more so deliberate practice).

Associated further reading and references:

  • ‘Chapter 4: Practice’, in Allison, S. and Tharby, A., 2017. Making Every Lesson Count. Carmarthen: Crown House.
  • Lemov, D., Woolway, E., & Yezzi, K., 2012. Practice perfect : 42 rules for getting better at getting better. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Willingham, D., 2009. Why Don’t Students Like School?. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Sherrington, T., and Caviglioli, O., 2020. TEACHING WALKTHRUS. [S.l.]: JOHN CATT EDUCATIONAL LTD.