A common myth in education is that you should teach one single skill or piece of knowledge for a long time before moving on to the next. This would be to follow the structure of a school textbook that is organised into separate topics, with neat topic questions (repeating the same kind of questions over and again) at the end of each chapter. In fact, studies have shown that this is not the most effective approach to learning.
In a study taken from 1978, researchers asked a group of eight-year-olds to toss bean bags into buckets. Half of the group practised with their bucket three feet away, and the other half alternated throwing from two and four feet away. Twelve weeks of practice later they were all tested on their ability to toss bean bags into a bucket, but this time just three feet away. Who do you expect did better? Very surprisingly, by a considerable margin it was the students who had alternated, who had never practised throwing the distance they were now being tested on. Why?
Different styles of practice engage different areas of the brain. It appears that massed practice, just throwing one distance, is consolidated in an area used for relatively simple cognitive motor skills. Whereas varied practice is consolidated in an area associated with higher-order motor skills. The study is nicely relevant to real life, where we are rarely asked to do exactly the same task again and again. And this kind of learning requires more mental effort, which as we have already seen, leads to better learning.
How fast is too fast?
Remember you will need to give the student enough time to properly practise the target skill, gently removing support from them until they can do it independently. To give you an idea of a really effective structure, here is an example Maths lesson:
- Introduce and teach topic (e.g. Pythagoras’ theorem)
- Ask questions to ensure the student has started to “get it” (i.e. they can find both long and short side lengths)
- Use additional questions to link this topic to others (show that this can be presented in “hidden” forms, e.g. within a circle)
- Move on to a new topic before they get too comfortable (they are getting most questions correct).
The crucial thing is to move on just as they “get it”
Of course, the length of time it takes to learn a topic will vary from student to student. But as a guide, if you have ten topics to cover in ten one-hour lessons, you might try introducing two topics in each of the first five lessons and then in each of the final five lessons going over two topics again, in an effort to consolidate and deepen the knowledge. But you should play this by ear.
For revising, this might mean running through a set of revision cards, and then moving on to something else rather than going through the cards again. This is very important: identifying the moment when skills and memories are becoming automatic in short-term storage, and thus no longer as useful for long-term learning. This is the moment to switch to a new challenge.
The wider application of varied practice
Varied practice also helps students to understand context and discriminate between problems more easily. The problems of real life come at us in a great many forms, and in a highly random way. In order to overcome these, we must be good at identifying the kind of problem we’re facing. And back in the academic context, a common problem students face is not being able to understand what is required of them when higher level exams present them with a tricky mix of topics. They have learnt to tackle a set of similar questions, laid out one after another, however they then struggle when these are jumbled up.
If your student’s exams don’t challenge them, have a look online for puzzle-solving questions and appropriate scholarship papers. With enough support, they will learn in a far more effective way than repeating the same questions again and again. Just taking the time to mix up multiplication problems with addition and subtraction, for example, can help students distinguish between the problems, and very importantly, keep them interested.