Behaviour

10. Independent practice

Video transcript

Presenter intro

In order to learn, pupils need plenty of opportunities to think hard. Alongside other strategies, this will require independent practice. There need to be times during lessons when pupils work on their own. Pupils are more likely to do this well when teachers give clear behavioural expectations for independent practice. Teachers need to show pupils how to work independently and actively monitor them to ensure that they do. Teachers need support to provide support and guidance for pupils undertaking independent practice.

Expert insight

Independent practice is about letting our pupils practise on their own. Our ultimate goal is that pupils will be able to use their knowledge or skills without teacher input. This means free of the support of any teachers or other adults.

Independent practice helps pupils to understand and explore content in the first instance. We know that pupils need a chance to play, go over content, or consolidate learning on their own. Even after first being exposed to the content, pupils need a chance continue to practise independently. Practising can also help retain content so that pupils are able to use it in the future. But knowing how to work on your own is a discipline that needs to be learnt. How can teachers help? 

First, you need to teach pupils what your expectations for independent practice are. This involves knowing what expectations are and then explaining them to pupils in detail. Your expectations should be made clear through manageable, specific and sequential instructions. Once you’ve shared your expectations, you need to check pupils have understood them. Ask specific questions that test for understanding of one instruction at a time.

When you’re confident that pupils have understood your expectations, your job isn’t done. During independent practice, you need to monitor how pupils are getting on. This involves seeing their play or work by circulating. You should use this time to check pupils are meeting your behavioural expectations. Where pupils are not, you can support them as least intrusively as possible by giving them a quick reminder. Make this a positive reminder. Instead of telling pupils what they shouldn’t be doing e.g. “don’t talk”, tell them that they should work in silence.

Setting up independent practice requires a lot of thought. You need to explicitly teach your expectations. It might be easy to assume your pupils should know what is expected of them, but they may well not, or they might have forgotten. Although we call it ‘independent practice’ that doesn’t mean that teachers don’t play an active role. Teachers need to actively monitor and support pupils to enable them to work on their own.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see an Ambition Institute coach model how to establish behavioural expectations for independent practice with her class. As you watch, focus on how Emma does the following:

  • Teaches and rigorously maintains clear behavioural expectations for independent work
  • Monitors pupil work during lessons, including checking for misconceptions

Exemplification

If we want pupils to focus on their learning and do well during independent practice, we need to establish clear guidelines. I’m going to model how to share behavioural expectations before independent work and how to monitor and support them stay focussed during this time.  

I want you to imagine that I am teaching a year 6 English lesson. Pupils are going to spend 20 minutes writing an opening to their own story. Over a sequence of learning, I have prepared the class for this task in a number of ways. For example, I have written a model for the class and we have co-written some sentence starters and discussed what words they could use. I’ve made sure that pupils have learnt the knowledge and skills that they need in order to practice this more challenging task. I’m confident that pupils will be able to complete the task independently, but I still need to support their behaviour. 

“You are now going to spend 20 minutes writing your story opening. In that 20 minutes I want everyone to work in silence so that you can concentrate really hard. 

If you get stuck, before asking for help, I want you to look at your story boards, the model that we have just created and the sentence starters and word bank to see if they can help you out. If you still feel like you need help, you can raise your hand and wait for me or Miss Patel to come to you. 

Ismail, can you share with the class what you need to complete in the next 20 minutes? 

[Pupil gives correct answer]

Aasha, what things should you look at if you get stuck before asking for me or Miss Patel to help? 

[Pupils gives correct answer]

Thank you. Does anyone have any questions before we begin? 

I will put 20 minutes on the timer, off you go.

(During the independent practice) 

Everybody should be writing or reading through their story boards, the example on the board or writing supports. 

(Turning to one pupil and holding finger to mouth, indicating silent work) 

I can see lots of children using well-chosen adjectives to set the scene, well done. 

If you have your hand up can I ask you to check that you have re-read your story board, the example on the board, or writing supports before asking for help? 

Thank you for those putting their hands down, that’s showing good problem solving.”

Let’s unpick this model. Firstly, I set out what I wanted to see and hear from pupils. My expectations for behaviour were clear. Pupils were to work on their own, in silence for twenty minutes. Secondly, I shared the expectation that before asking for help, pupils should read through the model and scaffolds provided. I asked two pupils to re-share these expectations, partly to check for understanding, but partly to restate the expectation to the class.  

During the independent work I circulated and made sure that most of the time I positioned myself so I could see the majority of the class. I actively showed the pupils that I was monitoring their behaviour as when I saw pupils starting to drift off task, I re-shared my expectations, for example, “everybody should be writing or reading through their story boards” and used verbal signals to individual pupils where required. I also kept pupils on task through using acknowledgment were pupils were meeting my expectations, for example, “thank you for those putting their hands down.”

Independent work is critical for pupil learning. However, in order for it to be successful, teachers must be clear about their behavioural expectations before pupils start and circulate to keep pupils on track using reminders and acknowledgment.

Presenter next steps and summary

In this video we have looked at how to support pupil behaviour during independent work so that we help them to stay focused. Now, read through the key ideas. Which of these ideas example best illustrate this?

  • Teaching and rigorously maintaining clear behavioural expectations for independent work.
  • Checking pupils’ understanding of instructions before a task begins.
  • Monitoring pupil work during lessons, including checking for misconceptions.

Independent practice is a skill that pupils need to be shown how to do well. Our pupils need support and practice to get the most out of it. When we get this right, pupils are able to do some of their best thinking on their own and strengthen their understanding in the process.

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Teaching challenge

Ms Silva feels that her pupils are now more open to challenge and will sometimes try to work without scaffolding. However, they still prefer to work with teacher or peer support and may be reluctant to work on their own. Ms Silva finds pupils engage well in helping her solve a tricky problem on the board, but when she says, “your turn”, there are some blank faces. How can she get pupils to adopt behaviours that support independent practice?

Key idea

Regular, purposeful practice is vital for pupil learning, so teachers need to develop routines and behaviours that support independent practice.

Evidence summary

The benefits and challenges of getting pupils to practise 

Independent practice is vital to pupil learning and success. To learn, pupils need to think hard about the content they have been taught (Coe, 2013). Effective teachers give plenty of class time for independent practice (Rosenshine, 2012). It has clear benefits for pupils learning in terms of:

  • Developing pupil fluency: When pupils practise, their understanding becomes more fluent and automatic, making it easier for pupils to apply their knowledge and learn new material (Rosenshine, 2012).
  • Helping pupils remember: For example, retrieval practice (getting pupils to recall what they have learned) is one of the best ways to ensure pupils remember learning at a later date (Pashler et al., 2008). 

Sometimes pupils avoid thinking hard – we all do. They also form unrealistic views of how much they know. Therefore, when given a choice, they often don’t choose effective study approaches (Pashler et al., 2008). For example, re-reading their notes may feel easy. Trying to recall what they have learned without support from peers or scaffolding feels harder, but is far more effective (Dunlosky et al., 2013). As pupils are also easily distracted, Ms Silva can best ensure they think hard by insisting that pupils practise independently.

Getting pupils ready for independent practice

Ms Silva should ask herself whether pupils are ready to practise independently. Do they realise why the effort of independent practice is important for their learning? Explaining the benefits of independent practice will help. For instance, she could explain that:

  • We learn what we think hard about.
  • Less support leads to better learning once pupils are ready to practise.
  • Effort makes success more likely (Coe et al., 2014).

She also needs ensure pupils practise successfully, as failure can damage pupil motivation and sense of self-worth (Coe et al., 2014). Independent practice is best done alone, so Ms Silva needs to provide enough support to ensure success. For example:

  • Introducing a manageable amount of new material.
  • Leading teacher-guided practice on the same material pupils will practise independently.
  • Providing scaffolding (Rosenshine, 2012).

Clear expectations and routines enhance independent practice

Ms Silva can set up independent practice consistently, in a way that develops routines over time. This is likely to contribute to pupil success, helping pupils to value practice. So, Ms Silva should consider how she will consistently:

  • Set clear behavioural and task expectations: (Coe et al., 2014) This means outlining the behaviours she expects to see during independent practice: ”I should see everyone focusing on their own work silently”, and the task and support she expects pupils to use: ”I want you to complete this exercise on the worksheet, without looking at the work we did last week”. 
  • Check for understanding: When introducing the independent practice tasks, teachers should ask specific, task-focused questions to get a clear sense of whether pupils have understood instructions (Rosenshine, 2012). Ms Silva should avoid questions like: “do we all understand this?”, where pupils’ default answer is ”yes”, even if they may not understand, or social pressure prevents them admitting to gaps in understanding (Rosenshine, 2012).
  • Circulate: Checking pupils are following instructions and holding them to account is distinct from supporting with work (Lemov, 2015). Research suggests that as teachers circulate, they should check in with individual pupils for no more than around 30 seconds (Rosenshine, 2012). Longer contacts could disrupt pupil independence by suggesting that teacher support is available.

If Ms Silva is finding many questions arise during independent practice, it might be that pupils are not ready or that they do not understand expectations. She might consider stopping practice, checking that enough support is in place and that pupils have understood her expectations.

Nuances and caveats 

Teachers should not set independent tasks  when pupils have very little knowledge of a topic (Coe et al., 2014). Pupils will need to be built up and supported through teacher input first. Once this has happened, relevant homework can also be good independent practice of what has been learned, particularly for older pupils. For young pupils, playful practice can be led by pupil interest and teachers should provide just enough support for pupils to be successful (Deans for Impact, 2019).

Effective monitoring during independent practice is often non-verbal – for example, the teacher standing and visibly scanning the classroom. While the importance of reinforcing behaviours with public praise is well known (IES, 2008), during independent practice there is a risk of this distracting pupil attention.There are also benefits of collaborative learning (Kirschner et al., 2018; Rosenshine, 2012), however Ms Silva might prioritise getting independent practice right first to make it more likely collaborative practice succeeds.

Key takeaways

Ms Silva can promote behaviours that support independent practice if she understands that:

  • Pupils need to understand the long-term benefits of practice, even if it feels hard.
  • To practise independently, pupils need enough support and clear behavioural expectations. Teachers also need to check pupil understanding of support and expectations.
  • Pupils need to be held to account to practise independently.

Further reading

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58. bit.ly/ecf-dun2

References

Coe, R. (2013). Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience. Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring.  bit.ly/ecf-coe2

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University. bit.ly/ecf-coe

Deans for Impact (2019). The Science of Early Learning. bit.ly/ecf-dea3

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013) Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Supplement, 14(1), 4–58. bit.ly/ecf-dun2

Institute of Education Sciences (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom. bit.ly/ecf-ies 

Kirschner, P., Sweller, J., Kirschner, F. & Zambrano, J. (2018). From cognitive load theory to collaborative cognitive load theory. In International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 13(2), 213-233.  

Lemov, D. (2015). Teach Like a Champion 2.0.  Jossey-Bass. 2nd ed. Edition.  

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest(3).  bit.ly/ecf-pas

Rosenshine, B. (2012) Principles of Instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American Educator, 12–20. bit.ly/ecf-ros

Check

Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

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Reflect

Reminder of key takeaways

Ms Silva can promote behaviours that support independent practice if she understands that:

  • Pupils need to understand the long-term benefits of practice, even if it feels hard.
  • To practise independently, pupils need enough support and clear behavioural expectations. Teachers also need to check pupil understanding of support and expectations.
  • Pupils need to be held to account to practise independently.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?