Nota bene: The following post considers “Mix Up Your Practice,” the third chapter of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel. Dr. Roediger will be the keynote speaker at the College of Charleston during TLTCon, which will be held May 16-17, 2019.
“Students just didn’t perform as well as I thought.” “I’ve spent my afternoon grading a lousy round of quizzes.” “I didn’t think my expectations were too high, but these tests proved they were.” Ever say one of these? Numerous times in my thirteen years of teaching I’ve felt the exasperation of wondering how my painstaking trek through lessons, skills, and concepts has left me with the same expression Stephen Colbert wore on the eve of November 8, 2016: “I’m not sure it’s a comedy show anymore.”
For our “Make It Stick Monday” blogpost, we are highlighting some surprising findings regarding skill mastery: “Practice that’s spaced out, interleaved with other learning, and varied produces better mastery, longer retention, and more versatility” (47). Sounds messy, right? Perhaps even chaotic, but Roediger and company offer some helpful insights. Here’s a sample of their evidence:
A group of eight-year-olds practiced tossing beanbags into buckets in gym class. Half of the kids tossed into a bucket three feet away. The other half mixed it up by tossing into buckets two feet and four feet away. After twelve weeks of this they were all tested on tossing into a three-foot bucket. The kids who did the best by far were those who’d practiced on two-and four-foot buckets but never on three-foot buckets (46).
I’ll pass over the fact that kids tossed beanbags into buckets for twelve weeks and consider a study that looks a little more relevant to us at College of Charleston. After being shown how to find the volumes of four geometric solids, one group of college students practiced solving problems grouped by type while another group practiced solving them with a mixed (i.e., interleaved) sequence. Just to be clear, the first group had four problems on the wedge, four on the spheroid, four on the spherical cone, and four on the half-cone; the second did the same problems but in random order. Initially, group one outperformed group two, averaging 89% of the problems correct to group two’s 60%. A week later, nevertheless, group one was out-performed by group two, averaging 20% correct to group two’s 63%. The authors conclude that “The mixing of problem types, which boosted final test performance by a remarkable 215 percent, actually impeded performance during initial learning” (50). Do they have our attention now?
Let’s assume for the time being that the findings are correct. What do these studies advocate? The initial takeaway is the focus on long-term results instead of short-term gains. There are pros and cons to this perspective for both students and teachers. Students are not going to feel the satisfaction of a mastering step 1 before moving on to step 2 and so on. Keep in mind, however, that mastery is not a short-term issue. To master something is to demonstrate it in the final analysis, and spaced out, interleaved, and varied practicing is going to feel a lot more like real work—an ethic completely compatible with critical thinking. When is the last time you’ve had a student tell you, “I love hard work”? Don’t hold your breath waiting for that response.
The other takeaway, though, may compel us to give the “mix it up” concept a chance. These studies insist that we must be able to articulate very clearly what we are guiding the students toward in terms of functionality. What are students ultimately being trained to do? What are the “movements” they must be capable of performing successfully? Most of my teaching has been in ancient languages, which means that I ultimately want students to read in the original language Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” Pericles’ funeral oration for the Athenian dead, Cicero’s orations, or Horace’s satires. Their ability to move about in text thick with Genitive and Accusative absolutes, mixed conditional statements, subjunctive and optative moods, etc. hinges upon their ability to pull all of their knowledge together, not just parse φαντασία or mensa in isolation. “I read Greek and Latin because I love grammar” is not something I’ve ever said or heard from a colleague. Yet, that’s the impression our textbooks often give.
In thinking about this concept of spaced out, interleaved, and varied practice, I wondered if there are parallels in physical exercise that suggest something similar to this type of learning exercise. Something about Make It Stick smacked of cross-training and—lo and behold—some thoughts on the popular CrossFit website caught my attention:
CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. All CrossFit workouts are based on functional movement, and these movements reflect the best aspects of gymnastics, weightlifting, running, rowing and more. These are the core movements of life.
That last statement gets me: “these are the core movements of life.” Functionality in the physical sense means that I need to be able to walk, lift, bend, sit, stand, run, twist, turn, pull, etc. and do them in unlimited combinations. An inability in any one of these movements leaves me struggling to get into my car for the ride to work. Or think of functionality in terms of competitive sport. How many times did my basketball coach have us stop running drills so that we could simply scrimmage? Why? Because ultimately, he wanted us to be a great basketball team. Who cares if we were able to run a 1-3-1 trap defense in practice on the right side of the court when an opposing guard during a scrimmage saw we were unable to cope or when he brought the ball on the left side or down the middle? Scrimmaging made us functional as a team because it forced us to connect our various movements.
The importance Make It Stick places on spaced out, interleaved, and varied practice reinforces a certain skepticism I’ve long harbored toward venting sessions, where instructors place all of the blame on the shoulders of seemingly incapable or “lazy” students. Granted, I’m still waiting on a student to tell me he loves figuring out Thucydides’ use of the Dative case, but then again I never confessed to loving Callimachus’ poetry during Professor Depew’s “Hellenistic Greek Poetry” class. (Take my word for it: that stuff is hard, and we should all just leave it to Aaron Palmore over in Randolph Hall to have his fun.) It stands to reason, though, that if a high percentage of the students can’t seem to “get it”—whatever that may mean in the various contexts of our courses—we may need to “mix up [our] practice.” It can’t hurt to try.