7. Practice, challenge and success

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Helena Moore

In order to learn something, pupils need lots of opportunities to practise it. They need time to think carefully about the content, to commit it to their long-term memory. Pupils need lots of time practising with a teacher and lots of time practising on their own. They also need the chance to retrieve what they know, which is called retrieval practice. Practice is an important part of learning and teachers need to know how to get the best out of it.

Presenter main

When we discuss practice, we’re talking about the opportunities for people to think hard about content or retrieve previously learned content. Think of it as the “you do” phase of the I-We-You model, where pupils are primarily working without teacher input. Providing our pupils with opportunities to think about challenging content increasingly on their own will help them secure what they learn and use it later on.

In order to remember something in the long term, pupils need to think about it and connect it to existing knowledge. Because we have a tendency to forget over time, pupils also need repeated opportunities to draw up information from their long-term memory. This is called retrieval practice. Effective practice gets pupils to think hard about what it is you want them to remember.

When designing practice, teachers need to check that the tasks get pupils to think about what they want them to learn and that the thinking required is pitched at the right level. Firstly, we need to ensure that practice tasks get pupils to think about the concepts, knowledge, and skills that we want pupils to remember. For example, when teaching photosynthesis, you might create a practice task that involves drawing a picture of a plant. Whilst this is clearly linked to the learning, there is a risk that pupils will spend lots of time thinking about colouring in the plant. We want them to think hard about the process, so it might be better to present them with an image of a plant and ask them to annotate it. Pupils will remember what they think about during a task. On the other hand, if a pupil doesn’t think about the learning, they won’t remember it.

Secondly, we need to pitch practice carefully. We want our pupils to think hard when facing challenging work but also to put their best effort in and experience a high success rate. If practice is too hard, then it’s likely to be off-putting. So teachers need to check that pupils have acquired enough knowledge during previous stages of learning to be able to work more independently. Equally, teachers need to ensure that the task will stretch pupils. If practice is too easy, it won’t require much cognitive effort. Pupil thinking needs to be effortful if it is to be retained. Getting the pitch of practice right gets easier as teachers get to know their pupils and develop their subject knowledge over time. Teachers should also ensure that they provide pupils with enough support in the previous phases of instruction before asking pupils to work independently. This can help them to achieve that high rate of success.

As well as making sure that pupils have acquired enough knowledge to access the activity, it can also help to use the same material in guided practice and independent practice. For example, if teachers have guided pupils through the process of accurately using commas to punctuate a subordinate clause, it makes sense to ask them to practice this same task on their own, rather than practicing adding commas to separate items in a list. Or if a history teacher has modelled the analytical process of identifying the nature, origin, and purpose of a picture source, it would be helpful for pupils to have a go at following this analytical process on their own, perhaps on a different picture source, assuming that pupils have the necessary knowledge to access both.

One thing to bear in mind is that there is no set formula for how much practice pupils will need. The amount, frequency, and emphasis of practice varies depending on the content and on the pupil. For example, a teacher might choose to come back to the difference between a fact and opinion a number of times across the year. This is a core concept that pupils need to remember. However, once a pupil has grasped the term onomatopoeia quickly, a teacher might not dedicate precious practice time to it.

Teachers also need to expect the unexpected when pupils are practicing on their own. Even when a teacher has checked that pupils understand something before they practice, they still might make mistakes. Teachers need to check pupil work during practice and may need to correct errors or pause and reteach. Pupils may well make mistakes during practice, but they shouldn’t continue to practise these same mistakes over time. Otherwise, there is a risk that mistakes will stick.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you will see an Ambition coach model how they might set up an independent practice task. As you watch, pay particular attention to how the coach does the following:

  • Plans activities around what pupils should think hard about
  • Designing practice, generation and retrieval tasks that provide just enough support so that pupils experience a high success rate when attempting challenging work

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

In this example, I’m going to model how the teacher sets up independent practice, which links to the learning in class and the pupils’ previous learning. I want you to imagine that this is a year eight French lesson. I’m about to introduce the independent practice task, which is to write a postcard in French which includes the near future tense. I’m confident that pupils have the knowledge and skills required to access the task. We’ve been learning about how to use the near future tense in this lesson. Pupils have written postcards in French as part of previous lessons, so they’re familiar with the key features of this type of writing. And in a previous lesson, pupils learned vocabulary and phrases including hobbies and holiday activities.

“Today, we’ve been learning about how to use the near future tense to talk about our future plans. We have practised adapting sentences from the present tense into the near future, and you’ve also practised writing your own sentences using the near future tense. So I think you’re ready for something a little bit more challenging, and we’re going to write a postcard using that near future tense.

Imagine that you’re on holiday and you’re writing a postcard home to your best friend. So all of that vocabulary that we learned about what you do in your free time and what you do on holidays, you can use it here.

I’ve also given you a list of infinitives that you can use too. I want you to write four sentences in total in your postcard.

Use the present tense to talk about what you’re doing now. Use the perfect tense to talk about what you did yesterday. And use the near future tense to talk about what you will do tomorrow. And I want you to do two sentences using the near future tense. So that’s four sentences in total.

So how many sentences do I want you to write in the present tense? Ben?

[Pupil gives correct answer]

Exactly. How many sentences do we need to write in the perfect tense? Sarah?

[Pupil gives correct answer]

Spot on. And how many sentences in the near future tense? Princess?

[Pupil gives correct answer]

Perfect. And what vocabulary can you use to help you? Iris?

[Pupil gives correct answer]

Great. So 10 minutes working in silence, off we go.”

I want to draw your attention to a couple of things in that model.

First, the task clearly gets pupils to think about what I need them to learn. For this lesson, pupils are learning how to use the near future tense. In this task, pupils are required to write two sentences in the near future tense. I drew attention to this by explicitly naming the tenses that they should use. In this part of my instruction, notice how I began each sentence by telling pupils what tense to use. Use the present tense. Use the perfect tense. Use the near future tense. We tend to notice things that repeat. In this case, that means noticing the focus on which tense they should write in. Even in the task instructions, I’m encouraging them to think about the learning goal.

Secondly, I designed this practice task to provide just enough support so that pupils experience a high success rate when attempting this work. They were using vocabulary that they know they’re secure in, and they had a list of infinitives to use. By providing this scaffolding, we help to manage the cognitive load of the lesson content so pupils can focus on the key learning, in this case, accurate use of the near future tense. This is a challenging task because pupils are having to apply previously learned content and new content. But the supports that I’ve provided should prevent it from being overwhelming.

Finally, before setting pupils off on the task, I asked a couple of questions to check that they had understood. Again, my questions focused on the content that I wanted them to think particularly hard about. Pupils were clear about what they needed to do and were supported to do it well.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we’ve explored why practice is so important for learning and some examples of what good practice looks like. Now, read through the key ideas of the video. Which of these do you feel that the example illustrated the best?

  • Planning activities around what you want pupils to think hard about
  • Designing practice, generation and retrieval tasks that provide just enough support so that pupils experience a high success rate when attempting challenging work
  • Breaking tasks down into constituent components when first setting up independent practice

Presenter summary

Getting practice right takes time and effort, but it promises huge rewards. If we want pupils to remember what we teach them, they have to think about it. They have to practise.

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Teaching challenge

Mr Andrews is getting better at identifying and conveying what he wants his pupils to learn. But while his checks for understanding reveal pupils have understood what he has taught, he notices that pupils are not yet able to securely grasp and apply key ideas independently. How can his instruction support pupils to consolidate their learning?

Key idea

Providing opportunities for purposeful practice supports pupils to consolidate and secure what they have learned.

Evidence summary

Learning is about remembering and connecting information

Mr Andrews now understands that ‘learning is the residue of thought’ (Willingham, 2009). In particular, what people have thought hard about (Coe, 2013). Thinking takes place in working memory where people combine knowledge from their long-term memory with new information (Willingham, 2009). To commit new information to long-term memory, pupils must have a strong foundation of prior knowledge.

Pupils consolidate their existing knowledge by retrieving it from long-term memory and using it to answer questions or solve problems (Roediger & Butler, 2011). This allows them to process new information faster and more accurately (Sweller, 2016). For example, they can comprehend new information by linking it with familiar words or ideas. What can Mr Andrews do to support pupils to successfully consolidate material?

Practice supports successful remembering and connecting

Regular purposeful practice consolidates pupils’ understanding and helps them remember key ideas. Practice can happen in the ‘We do’ as well as the ‘You do’ parts of instruction. Initially, teachers should scaffold practice as part of ‘We do’ (Lemov, 2015), for example by solving problems with pupils, to show them how to complete problems. Over time, teachers can decrease the support they offer to help pupils practise independently (IES, 2008).

Independent practice tasks (‘You do’) (Lemov, 2015) should relate closely to those covered in guided practice. Otherwise pupils may struggle and waste time identifying what to do (Kirschner et al., in Christodoulou, 2017). This also allows pupils to focus on becoming more fluent at solving a problem or recalling information (Rosenshine, 2012). For example, if the guided practice has been about adding fractions, this should also be the focus of independent practice, rather than adding and subtracting fractions.

Over time, practice should support the development of expertise by consolidating mental models, as thinking hard secures memories and makes new connections. This helps pupils to free up their working memory to tackle more complicated problems (Sweller, 2016). For example, practising times tables allows pupils to tackle more advanced maths problems more easily.

For practice to be effective, teachers need to ensure pupils achieve a high success rate, ideally of around 80% (Rosenshine, 2012). Mr Andrews needs to ensure that where pupils are not regularly successful in their practice, he intervenes with feedback which pupils can act on. He can also acknowledge and praise pupil effort and emphasise progress made toward eventual success. High levels of success also improve pupils’ motivation (Coe et al., 2014).

Effective approaches to independent practice

After introducing content in small steps, supported through models and guided instruction, Mr Andrews now needs to get his pupils to practise independently. How should he organise and ‘space’ this practice over time?

  • Spacing practice over time (or ‘distributing’ it) makes learning feel harder but improves pupils’ retention because they have to think harder about it (Dunlosky et al., 2013).
  • Assuming pupils are getting questions right, teachers can increase the intervals between practice (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

Mr Andrews should be intentional in not just how he spaces practice but what he includes in practice. He should consider not just what he has recently taught but also supporting pupils to master challenging content which builds towards long-term goals. Therefore, pupils should practise skills and knowledge from previous weeks and months. He can increase the challenge by removing scaffolding, lengthening spaces or introducing interacting elements, for example a more complicated problem where one step relies on a previous step.

While practice matters, “not all practice is equivalent” (Deans for Impact, 2015). Setting up pupils for independent practice might involve Mr Andrews giving his pupils a set of problems to solve but it could also involve teaching them to self-quiz. Testing is among the most effective techniques for supporting pupils to remember what they have learned (Pan et al., 2018). Retrieval is also more effective than other independent study activities such as re-reading and highlighting (Dunlosky et al., 2013) because it requires pupils to think hard.

Nuances and caveats

While increasing time gaps between practice is beneficial for learning, this is not always practical. It depends how long pupils need to recall this information for. For example, to remember something for one week, practice should be spaced 12 to 24 hours apart. Whereas, to remember something for five years, practice should be spaced 6 to 12 months apart (Dunlosky et al., 2013).

Lots of practice at once (cramming) can be effective if pupils know very little and want to pass an exam – however, this is not an appropriate strategy if we want them to remember these ideas the following year or beyond.

Homework might be a good opportunity for further practice of what has been learnt in class. Homework can improve pupil outcomes, particularly for older pupils, but it is likely that the quality of the homework and its relevance to main class teaching is more important than the amount set (EEF, 2018).

Summary of key takeaways

Mr Andrews can support successful practice if he understands that:

  • Learning is about remembering and connecting information through thinking hard.
  • Purposeful practice which causes pupils to think hard improves their retention.
  • Effective instruction includes purposeful practice and regular retrieval.

Further reading

Deans for Impact (2015). The Science of Learning.


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 (2015). The Science of 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.

Education Endowment Foundation (2018). Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

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

Pan, S. C., & Rickard, T. C. (2018) Transfer of test-enhanced learning: Meta-analytic review and synthesis. Psychological Bulletin, 144(7), 710–756.

Roediger, H. L., & Butler, A. C. (2011) The critical role of retrieval practice in long-term retention. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(1), 20–27.

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

Sweller, J. (2016). Working Memory, Long-term Memory, and Instructional Design. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(4), 360–367.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? San Francisco: Jossey Bass.


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

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Reminder of key takeaways

Mr Andrews can support successful practice if he understands that:

  • Learning is about remembering and connecting information through thinking hard.
  • Purposeful practice which causes pupils to think hard improves their retention.
  • Effective instruction includes purposeful practice and regular retrieval.


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?