In Defense of Practice

by Dan Willingham
March 25th, 2009

“Drill and kill” are dirty words in education.  The teacher drills the students, which is said to kill their innate motivation to learn.  The word drill conjures up military imagery not associated with the more neutral term practice, which means the same thing.  On the other side of this debate are educational traditionalists who argue that students must practice in order to learn some facts and skills they need at their fingertips-for example, math facts. 

For teachers, the important question is whether the cognitive benefit of automaticity make it worth the potential cost to motivation.  The answer is that it is sometimes worth it, and even necessary. The question is how to get the benefits of practice while minimizing the costs.

Why do I say that practice is necessary? One benefit of practice is to gain a minimum level of competence. A child practices tying her shoelaces with a parent or teacher’s help until she can reliably tie them without supervision.  Less obvious are the reasons to practice skills when it appears you have mastered something and it’s not obvious that practice is making you any better. Odd as it may seem, that sort of practice is essential to schooling. It yields three important benefits: it reinforces the basic skills that are required for the learning of more advanced skills, it protects against forgetting, and it improves transfer-the ability to apply what we know in different circumstances. 

Working memory is the where thinking occurs   A critical feature of working memory is that it has limited space.  There are, however, ways to cheat this limitation. The first way is through factual knowledge, as I discussed yesterday. A second way is to make the processes that manipulate information in working memory more efficient.  In fact, you can make them so efficient that they are virtually cost free. Think about learning to tie your shoes. Initially it requires your full attention and thus absorbs all of working memory, but with practice you can tie your shoes without thinking about it. 

Likewise, beginning readers slowly and painstakingly sound out each letter and then combine the sounds into words, so there is no room left in working memory to think about meaning.  When students are first introduced to arithmetic, they often solve problems by using counting strategies until they gain command of basic math facts.  Learning to write or keyboard letters is laborious and consumes all of working memory, leaving you unable to think of the content of what you’re trying to write until it becomes automatic. 

What’s true of reading, writing and math is true of most or all school subjects, and of the skills we want our students to have. They are hierarchical. There are basic processes (like retrieving math facts or using deductive logic in science) that initially are demanding of working memory but with practice become automatic. Those processes must become automatic in order for students to advance their thinking to the next level.

So now we get to the payoff: What is required to make these processes shrink, that is, to get them to become automatized? You know the answer: practice. There may be a workaround, a cheat, whereby you can reap the benefits of automaticity without paying the price of practicing, but if there is, neither science nor the collected wisdom of the world’s cultures has revealed it. As far as anyone knows, the only way to develop mental facility is to repeat the target process again and again and again.

If practice makes mental processes automatic, we can then ask, which processes need to become automatic? Retrieving number facts from memory seems to be a good candidate, as does retrieving letter sounds from memory. A science teacher may decide that his students need to have at their fingertips basic facts about elements. In general, the processes that need to become automatic are probably the building blocks of skills that will provide the most benefit if they are automatized. Building blocks are the things one does again and again in a subject area, and they are the prerequisites for more advanced work.

Tomorrow:  How Can We Get Students to Think Like Experts?

Daniel T. Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of Why Students Don’t Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2009) from which this post was adapted.