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Small teaching approach: Practicing
Practicing is based on the theory that students must have extended direct practice to become proficient at mental tasks. Some fundamental tasks need to be repeated to the point of becoming automatized in order to free up mental space to allow for higher-order cognitive tasks. An important feature of practicing is short, low-stakes, or no-stakes feedback loops. The presence of a teacher during student practice time can promote mindful learning.
How to apply this approach
Unpack Assessments — Help students break down a larger task into smaller tasks that can be practiced in ways in which feedback is spaced, specific, and actionable towards the final product. Break down assessments into smaller chunks, identifying cognitive skills needed for success. Parcel Them Out and Practice Them — Create small teaching experiences that offer students the practice/feedback loop. This can happen online or in class. In-class experiences can be five or ten minutes of each class or on a few select class days in the weeks leading up to the larger assessment’s due date. Provide Feedback -— Give actionable feedback to students’ practice efforts to give them a chance to self-correct. Ask questions to get students thinking about why and how they chose a particular approach.
In-Class Practice — While practice that takes place away from the presence of an instructor is important, it can encourage over-learning, mindless repetition, and the development of wrong or poor habits. Practice that takes place with the benefit of your presence and feedback has the potential to create more powerful learning. Ongoing Practice — A single class session of practice is less effective than spreading the practice over several class sessions. Interleaving practice time provides multiple, brief sessions for practice, feedback, growth, and learning. Mindful Learning — Repetition itself will not produce the best results. The in-class practice provides opportunities for teachers to nudge students towards mindful learning through reflection and consideration of alternatives.
- Create time and space for students to practice cognitive skills under direct teacher guidance leads to more rapid growth and skill acquisition in learners.
- Generate a comprehensive list of cognitive skills needed for success in the course before the semester begins.
- Prioritize the cognitive skills, decide which ones are foundational and should be learned early in the semester and which ones are demonstrable only after basic skills are mastered.
- Review your semester schedule, plan where small practice sessions can fit, and include them on your syllabus.
- Make sure all major assessments are supported ahead of time with multiple opportunities for students to practice skills and receive feedback.
Lang, James M. Small teaching: Everyday lessons from the science of learning. John Wiley & Sons, 2016. pp. 72-85.