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Teaching challenge

Ms Silva feels that her pupils are now more open to challenge and will sometimes try to work without scaffolding. However, they still prefer to work with teacher or peer support and may be reluctant to work on their own. Ms Silva finds pupils engage well in helping her solve a tricky problem on the board, but when she says, “your turn”, there are some blank faces. How can she get pupils to adopt behaviours that support independent practice?

Key idea

Regular, purposeful practice is vital for pupil learning, so teachers need to develop routines and behaviours that support independent practice.

Evidence summary

The benefits and challenges of getting pupils to practise

Independent practice is vital to pupil learning and success. To learn, pupils need to think hard about the content they have been taught (Coe, 2013). Effective teachers give plenty of class time for independent practice (Rosenshine, 2012). It has clear benefits for pupils’ learning in terms of:

  • Developing pupil fluency: When pupils practise, their understanding becomes more fluent and automatic, making it easier for pupils to apply their knowledge and learn new material (Rosenshine, 2012).
  • Helping pupils remember: For example, retrieval practice (getting pupils to recall what they have learned) is one of the best ways to ensure pupils remember learning at a later date (Pashler et al., 2008).

Sometimes pupils avoid thinking hard – we all do. They also form unrealistic views of how much they know. Therefore, when given a choice, they often don’t choose effective study approaches (Pashler et al., 2008). For example, re-reading their notes may feel easy. Trying to recall what they have learned without support from peers or scaffolding feels harder, but is far more effective (Dunlosky et al., 2013). As pupils are also easily distracted, Ms Silva can best ensure they think hard by insisting that pupils practise independently.

Getting pupils ready for independent practice

Ms Silva should ask herself whether pupils are ready to practise independently. Do they realise why the effort of independent practice is important for their learning? Explaining the benefits of independent practice will help. For instance, she could explain that:

  • We learn what we think hard about.
  • Less support leads to better learning once pupils are ready to practise.
  • Effort makes success more likely (Coe et al., 2014).

She also needs ensure pupils practise successfully, as failure can damage pupil motivation and sense of self-worth (Coe et al., 2014). Independent practice is best done alone, so Ms Silva needs to provide enough support to ensure success. For example:

  • Introducing a manageable amount of new material.
  • Leading teacher-guided practice on the same material pupils will practise independently.
  • Providing scaffolding (Rosenshine, 2012).

Clear expectations and routines enhance independent practice

Ms Silva can set up independent practice consistently, in a way that develops routines over time. This is likely to contribute to pupil success, helping pupils to value practice. So, Ms Silva should consider how she will consistently:

  • Set clear behavioural and task expectations: This means outlining the behaviours she expects to see during independent practice: ”I should see everyone focusing on their own work silently”, and the task and support she expects pupils to use: ”I want you to complete this exercise on the worksheet, without looking at the work we did last week” (Coe et al., 2014).
  • Check for understanding: When introducing the independent practice tasks, teachers should ask specific, task-focused questions to get a clear sense of whether pupils have understood instructions (Rosenshine, 2012). Ms Silva should avoid questions like: “do we all understand this?”, where pupils’ default answer is ”yes”, even if they may not understand, or social pressure prevents them admitting to gaps in understanding (Rosenshine, 2012).
  • Circulate: Checking pupils are following instructions and holding them to account is distinct from supporting with work (Lemov, 2015). Research suggests that as teachers circulate, they should check in with individual pupils for no more than around 30 seconds (Rosenshine, 2012). Longer contacts could disrupt pupil independence by suggesting that teacher support is available.

If Ms Silva is finding many questions arise during independent practice, it might be that pupils are not ready or that they do not understand her expectations. She might consider stopping practice, checking that enough support is in place and that pupils have understood her expectations.

Nuances and caveats

Teachers should not set independent tasks when pupils have very little knowledge of a topic (Coe et al., 2014). Pupils will need to be built up and supported through teacher input first. Once this has happened, relevant homework can also be good independent practice of what has been learned, particularly for older pupils. For young pupils, playful practice can be led by pupil interest and teachers should provide just enough support for pupils to be successful (Deans for Impact, 2019).

Effective monitoring during independent practice is often non-verbal – for example, the teacher standing and visibly scanning the classroom. While the importance of reinforcing behaviours with public praise is well known (IES, 2008), during independent practice there is a risk of this distracting pupil attention. There are also benefits of collaborative learning (Kirschner et al., 2018; Rosenshine, 2012), however Ms Silva might prioritise getting independent practice right first to make it more likely collaborative practice succeeds.

Key takeaways

Ms Silva can promote behaviours that support independent practice if she understands that:

  • pupils need to understand the long-term benefits of practice, even if it feels hard
  • to practise independently, pupils need enough support and clear behavioural expectations. Teachers also need to check pupil understanding of support and expectations
  • pupils need to be held to account to practise independently

Further reading

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58.


Coe, R. (2013). 

Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience

. Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014).

What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research

. Durham University.

Deans for Impact (2019). The Science of Early Learning.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology.

Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14

(1), 4–58.

Institute of Education Sciences (2008). 

Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.


Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F. & Zambrano, J. (2018). From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory. In 

International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning

, 13 (2), 213-233.   

Lemov, D. (2015).  Teach Like a Champion 2.0 .  Jossey-Bass. 2 nd  ed. Edition.   

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. 

Psychological Science in the Public Interest


Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. 

American Educator

, 12–20.