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Video transcript

Presenter intro: Helena Moore

In order to learn something, pupils need lots of opportunities to practise it. They need time to think carefully about the content, to commit it to their long-term memory. Pupils need lots of time practising with a teacher and lots of time practising on their own. They also need the chance to retrieve what they know, which is called retrieval practice. Practice is an important part of learning and teachers need to know how to get the best out of it.

Presenter main

When we discuss practice, we’re talking about the opportunities for people to think hard about content or retrieve previously learned content. Think of it as the "you do" phase of the I-We-You model, where pupils are primarily working without teacher input. Providing our pupils with opportunities to think about challenging content increasingly on their own will help them secure what they learn and use it later on.

In order to remember something in the long term, pupils need to think about it and connect it to existing knowledge. Because we have a tendency to forget over time, pupils also need repeated opportunities to draw up information from their long-term memory. This is called retrieval practice. Effective practice gets pupils to think hard about what it is you want them to remember.

When designing practice, teachers need to check that the tasks get pupils to think about what they want them to learn and that the thinking required is pitched at the right level. Firstly, we need to ensure that practice tasks get pupils to think about the concepts, knowledge, and skills that we want pupils to remember. For example, when teaching photosynthesis, you might create a practice task that involves drawing a picture of a plant. Whilst this is clearly linked to the learning, there is a risk that pupils will spend lots of time thinking about colouring in the plant. We want them to think hard about the process, so it might be better to present them with an image of a plant and ask them to annotate it. Pupils will remember what they think about during a task. On the other hand, if a pupil doesn’t think about the learning, they won’t remember it.

Secondly, we need to pitch practice carefully. We want our pupils to think hard when facing challenging work but also to put their best effort in and experience a high success rate. If practice is too hard, then it’s likely to be off-putting. So teachers need to check that pupils have acquired enough knowledge during previous stages of learning to be able to work more independently. Equally, teachers need to ensure that the task will stretch pupils. If practice is too easy, it won’t require much cognitive effort. Pupil thinking needs to be effortful if it is to be retained. Getting the pitch of practice right gets easier as teachers get to know their pupils and develop their subject knowledge over time. Teachers should also ensure that they provide pupils with enough support in the previous phases of instruction before asking pupils to work independently. This can help them to achieve that high rate of success.

As well as making sure that pupils have acquired enough knowledge to access the activity, it can also help to use the same material in guided practice and independent practice. For example, if teachers have guided pupils through the process of accurately using commas to punctuate a subordinate clause, it makes sense to ask them to practice this same task on their own, rather than practicing adding commas to separate items in a list. Or if a history teacher has modelled the analytical process of identifying the nature, origin, and purpose of a picture source, it would be helpful for pupils to have a go at following this analytical process on their own, perhaps on a different picture source, assuming that pupils have the necessary knowledge to access both.

One thing to bear in mind is that there is no set formula for how much practice pupils will need. The amount, frequency, and emphasis of practice varies depending on the content and on the pupil. For example, a teacher might choose to come back to the difference between a fact and opinion a number of times across the year. This is a core concept that pupils need to remember. However, once a pupil has grasped the term onomatopoeia quickly, a teacher might not dedicate precious practice time to it.

Teachers also need to expect the unexpected when pupils are practicing on their own. Even when a teacher has checked that pupils understand something before they practice, they still might make mistakes. Teachers need to check pupil work during practice and may need to correct errors or pause and reteach. Pupils may well make mistakes during practice, but they shouldn’t continue to practise these same mistakes over time. Otherwise, there is a risk that mistakes will stick.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see an Ambition coach model how they might set up an independent practice task. As you watch, pay particular attention to how the coach does the following:

  • Plans activities around what pupils should think hard about
  • Designing practice, generation and retrieval tasks that provide just enough support so that pupils experience a high success rate when attempting challenging work

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

In this example, I’m going to model how the teacher sets up independent practice, which links to the learning in class and the pupils’ previous learning. I want you to imagine that this is a year eight French lesson. I’m about to introduce the independent practice task, which is to write a postcard in French which includes the near future tense. I’m confident that pupils have the knowledge and skills required to access the task. we’ve been learning about how to use the near future tense in this lesson. Pupils have written postcards in French as part of previous lessons, so they’re familiar with the key features of this type of writing. And in a previous lesson, pupils learned vocabulary and phrases including hobbies and holiday activities.

“Today, we’ve been learning about how to use the near future tense to talk about our future plans. We have practised adapting sentences from the present tense into the near future, and you’ve also practised writing your own sentences using the near future tense. So I think you’re ready for something a little bit more challenging, and we’re going to write a postcard using that near future tense.

Imagine that you’re on holiday and you’re writing a postcard home to your best friend. So all of that vocabulary that we learned about what you do in your free time and what you do on holidays, you can use it here.

I’ve also given you a list of infinitives that you can use too. I want you to write four sentences in total in your postcard.

Use the present tense to talk about what you’re doing now. Use the perfect tense to talk about what you did yesterday. And use the near future tense to talk about what you will do tomorrow. And I want you to do two sentences using the near future tense. So that’s four sentences in total.

So how many sentences do I want you to write in the present tense? Ben?

[Pupil gives correct answer]

Exactly. How many sentences do we need to write in the perfect tense? Sarah?

[Pupil gives correct answer]

Spot on. And how many sentences in the near future tense? Princess?

[Pupil gives correct answer]

Perfect. And what vocabulary can you use to help you? Iris?

[Pupil gives correct answer]

Great. So 10 minutes working in silence, off we go."

I want to draw your attention to a couple of things in that model.

First, the task clearly gets pupils to think about what I need them to learn. For this lesson, pupils are learning how to use the near future tense. In this task, pupils are required to write two sentences in the near future tense. I drew attention to this by explicitly naming the tenses that they should use. In this part of my instruction, notice how I began each sentence by telling pupils what tense to use. Use the present tense. Use the perfect tense. Use the near future tense. We tend to notice things that repeat. In this case, that means noticing the focus on which tense they should write in. Even in the task instructions, I’m encouraging them to think about the learning goal.

Secondly, I designed this practice task to provide just enough support so that pupils experience a high success rate when attempting this work. They were using vocabulary that they know they’re secure in, and they had a list of infinitives to use. By providing this scaffolding, we help to manage the cognitive load of the lesson content so pupils can focus on the key learning, in this case, accurate use of the near future tense. This is a challenging task because pupils are having to apply previously learned content and new content. But the supports that I’ve provided should prevent it from being overwhelming.

Finally, before setting pupils off on the task, I asked a couple of questions to check that they had understood. Again, my questions focused on the content that I wanted them to think particularly hard about. Pupils were clear about what they needed to do and were supported to do it well.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we’ve explored why practice is so important for learning and some examples of what good practice looks like. Now, read through the key ideas of the video. Which of these do you feel that the example illustrated the best?

  • Planning activities around what you want pupils to think hard about
  • Designing practice, generation and retrieval tasks that provide just enough support so that pupils experience a high success rate when attempting challenging work
  • Breaking tasks down into constituent components when first setting up independent practice

Presenter summary

Getting practice right takes time and effort, but it promises huge rewards. If we want pupils to remember what we teach them, they have to think about it. They have to practise.