10. Independent practice

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Peps McCrea

To learn effectively, pupils need plenty of opportunities to think hard. Sometimes we need to do this thinking on our own. There need to be times during lessons when pupils work independently. Pupils are more likely to do this well when teachers give clear behavioural expectations for independent practice. We need to provide support and guidance when pupils work on their own.

Presenter main

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

Independent practice helps pupils to understand and explore content. 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 to 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 learned. How can teachers help?

First, you need to teach a pupil 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 your pupils have understood them. Ask specific questions that test for understanding one instruction at a time.

When you’re confident that pupils have understood your expectations, there’s still more to be done. During independent practice, you need to monitor how pupils are getting on. This might involve seeing their play or work by circulating the room. You should use this time to check pupils are meeting your behavioural expectations. Where they 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, for example, “don’t talk”, tell them what they should be doing, “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 simply might’ve 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 a model of how to establish behavioural expectations for independent practice. As you watch focus on the following:

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

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

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 support them to stay focused during this time.

I want you to imagine that I am teaching a year six English lesson. Pupils are going to spend 15 minutes writing an opening to their own story. Over a sequence of learning, I’ve prepared the class for this task in a number of ways. We have studied the genre that they are writing in, and the pupils have created storyboards to structure their story. For the opening, we have co-written a model for the class and I have written some sentence starters and created a word bank for them to use.

With this preparation, I’m confident that the pupils will be able to complete the task independently, but I still need to support their behaviour.

“OK, you’re now going to spend 15 minutes writing the opening to your story. During that 15 minutes, I need everybody to be working in silence so that you can concentrate really hard. If you get stuck, before asking for help, I want you to look at your storyboards, the model that we’ve just created together, and the word bank and the sentence starters in your books. If you still feel that you need help, then raise your hands. And either myself or Ms. Stevens will come to you.

Ishmael, can you explain to everybody what I’m expecting you to do in the next 15 minutes?

[Pupils gives correct response]

Great. And Aisha, if you get stuck, before asking for help, what things should you look at?

[Pupil gives correct response]

Thank you. OK. Does anyone have any more questions? Nope? Great. So I’m going to put 15 minutes on the timer, off you go.

[Teacher scans the room and then circulates as pupils practice]

Everyone should be writing, or reading through their storyboards or the model on the board, or that word bank and the sentence starters in your book. I can see lots of pupils are using really well-chosen adjectives to set the scene, well done.

If you’ve got your hand up, can I ask you to check that you’ve read through your storyboards or the model on the boards, or those sentence starters and the word bank in your books before asking for help. Thank you. So those of you who are putting your hands down, that’s showing really good problem-solving.”

Let’s unpick this model. Firstly, I set clear expectations for behaviour. I stated what I wanted to see and hear from pupils. Pupils were to work on their own in silence for 15 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 reshare these expectations, partly to check for understanding, but partly to restate the expectation to the class. Critically, I was also sure that they had the knowledge, skills and scaffolds to be able to complete the task.

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 show the pupils that I was checking their behaviour. And when I saw pupils starting to drift off task, I quickly reminded them of my expectations. For example, “everybody should be writing or reading through their storyboards”. This reminder was phrased positively. It’s more helpful to remind pupils what they should do rather than point out what they shouldn’t. I also use non-verbal signals to individual pupils when required. I want to support pupils to keep on task without interrupting others. I also kept pupils on task by acknowledging pupils who were meeting my expectations. For example, “thank you to those putting their hands down”.

Independent work is critical for pupil learning. However, in order for it to be successful, teachers must be sure that pupils have the knowledge and skills required for the task, be clear on their behavioural expectations before pupils start and circulate to keep pupils on track.

Presenter key ideas

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

  • Teach and rigorously maintain clear behavioural expectations for independent work
  • Check pupils’ understanding of instructions before a task begins
  • Monitor pupil work during lessons, including checking for misconceptions

Presenter summary

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: 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” (Coe et al., 2014). 
  • 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 her 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.


Coe, R. (2013). Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience. Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring.

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

Deans for Impact (2019). The Science of Early Learning.

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.

Institute of Education Sciences (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom. 

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).

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


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

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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?