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Teaching challenge

Mr Andrews is getting better at identifying and conveying what he wants his pupils to learn. But while his checks for understanding reveal pupils have understood what he has taught, he notices that pupils are not yet able to securely grasp and apply key ideas independently. How can his instruction support pupils to consolidate their learning?

Key idea

Providing opportunities for purposeful practice supports pupils to consolidate and secure what they have learned.

Evidence summary

Learning is about remembering and connecting information

Mr Andrews now understands that ‘learning is the residue of thought’ (Willingham, 2009). In particular, what people have thought hard about (Coe, 2013). Thinking takes place in working memory where people combine knowledge from their long-term memory with new information (Willingham, 2009). To commit new information to long-term memory, pupils must have a strong foundation of prior knowledge.

Pupils consolidate their existing knowledge by retrieving it from long-term memory and using it to answer questions or solve problems (Roediger & Butler, 2011). This allows them to process new information faster and more accurately (Sweller, 2016). For example, they can comprehend new information by linking it with familiar words or ideas. What can Mr Andrews do to support pupils to successfully consolidate material?

Practice supports successful remembering and connecting

Regular purposeful practice consolidates pupils’ understanding and helps them remember key ideas. Practice can happen in the ‘We do’ as well as the ‘You do’ parts of instruction. Initially, teachers should scaffold practice as part of ‘We do’ (Lemov, 2015), for example by solving problems with pupils, to show them how to complete problems. Over time, teachers can decrease the support they offer to help pupils practise independently (IES, 2008).

Independent practice tasks (‘You do’) (Lemov, 2015) should relate closely to those covered in guided practice. Otherwise pupils may struggle and waste time identifying what to do (Kirschner et al., in Christodoulou, 2017). This also allows pupils to focus on becoming more fluent at solving a problem or recalling information (Rosenshine, 2012). For example, if the guided practice has been about adding fractions, this should also be the focus of independent practice, rather than adding and subtracting fractions.

Over time, practice should support the development of expertise by consolidating mental models, as thinking hard secures memories and makes new connections. This helps pupils to free up their working memory to tackle more complicated problems (Sweller, 2016). For example, practising times tables allows pupils to tackle more advanced maths problems more easily.

For practice to be effective, teachers need to ensure pupils achieve a high success rate, ideally of around 80% (Rosenshine, 2012). Mr Andrews needs to ensure that where pupils are not regularly successful in their practice, he intervenes with feedback which pupils can act on. He can also acknowledge and praise pupil effort and emphasise progress made toward eventual success. High levels of success also improve pupils’ motivation (Coe et al., 2014).

Effective approaches to independent practice

After introducing content in small steps, supported through models and guided instruction, Mr Andrews now needs to get his pupils to practise independently. How should he organise and ‘space’ this practice over time?

  • Spacing practice over time (or ‘distributing’ it) makes learning feel harder but improves pupils’ retention because they have to think harder about it (Dunlosky et al., 2013).
  • Assuming pupils are getting questions right, teachers can increase the intervals between practice (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

Mr Andrews should be intentional in not just how he spaces practice but what he includes in practice. He should consider not just what he has recently taught but also supporting pupils to master challenging content which builds towards long-term goals. Therefore, pupils should practise skills and knowledge from previous weeks and months. He can increase the challenge by removing scaffolding, lengthening spaces or introducing interacting elements, for example a more complicated problem where one step relies on a previous step.

While practice matters, “not all practice is equivalent” (Deans for Impact, 2015). Setting up pupils for independent practice might involve Mr Andrews giving his pupils a set of problems to solve but it could also involve teaching them to self-quiz. Testing is among the most effective techniques for supporting pupils to remember what they have learned (Pan et al., 2018). Retrieval is also more effective than other independent study activities such as re-reading and highlighting (Dunlosky et al., 2013) because it requires pupils to think hard.

Nuances and caveats

While increasing time gaps between practice is beneficial for learning, this is not always practical. It depends how long pupils need to recall this information for. For example, to remember something for one week, practice should be spaced 12 to 24 hours apart. Whereas, to remember something for five years, practice should be spaced 6 to 12 months apart (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

Lots of practice at once (cramming) can be effective if pupils know very little and want to pass an exam – however, this is not an appropriate strategy if we want them to remember these ideas the following year or beyond.

Homework might be a good opportunity for further practice of what has been learnt in class. Homework can improve pupil outcomes, particularly for older pupils, but it is likely that the quality of the homework and its relevance to main class teaching is more important than the amount set (EEF, 2018).

Summary of key takeaways

Mr Andrews can support successful practice if he understands that:

  • learning is about remembering and connecting information through thinking hard
  • purposeful practice which causes pupils to think hard improves their retention
  • effective instruction includes purposeful practice and regular retrieval

Further reading

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning.


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 (2015). The Science of 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.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018). Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

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

Pan, S. C., & Rickard, T. C. (2018) Transfer of test-enhanced learning: Meta-analytic review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 144(7), 710–756.

Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011) The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27.

Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20.

Sweller, J. (2016). Working Memory, Long-term Memory, and Instructional Design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360–367.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco: Jossey Bass.