Of the importance of giving opportunities to practice

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When you are short on time and want to teach as much as possible in a given time, how do you allocate time to different activities and are there any that you might be able to drop? Classically, practice is often pushed into homework assignments or private study time, but a study shows that this might not be a good choice.
There are many elements of instruction that are often combined based on gut-feeling. Martin, Klein and Sullivan (2007) investigate “the impact of instructional elements in computer-based instruction” in a systematic way in order to investigate the impact of several elements of instruction on student learning. The elements of instruction they separate are
  • objectives (statements describing intended learning outcomes that can help students by giving them structures in which to organize new material)
  • information (presentation of the actual content students are supposed to be learning)
  • practice with feedback (the element of instruction where performance is elicited and where learners confirm their correct understanding)
  • examples (examples as well as non-examples, analogies or graphical representations provide additional clarification to learners)
  • review (reinforcing learning at the end of instruction by repeating an outline of the key information)
The authors create 6 groups which contain a comparable mix of students according to a pre-test, and each of the groups is assigned a different e-learning setup. The setups differ such that one contains the full program, one the program without content related to the objectives, one the program without content related to examples, one the program without content related to review, one the program without content related to practice and the final one consisting of information only.
The result is that practice is the one instructional element that has the biggest impact on learner achievement. Students that were assigned the program without practice or the “lean” program did significantly worse on the post test than all other groups. Removal of no other element from the full program had a similar effect.
What do we learn from that study? Granted, it was one study and in computer-based instruction. But I think the message is quite clear: Practice is important. And it is not sufficient to tell students to practice, but opportunities for practice need to be provided. Quite often we think that if we convey the information in a nice way, with a good structure and including examples, that should be sufficient. But this study should make us think twice and drop other elements of instruction before cutting back on practice time.

Martin, F., Klein, J., & Sullivan, H. (2007). The impact of instructional elements in computer-based instruction British Journal of Educational Technology, 38 (4), 623-636 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2006.00670.x

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