“Drill and kill” is a phrase used and more often misused in the field of education to incorrectly label many types of learning tasks: practicing math facts, taking multiple choice tests, and even using some types of educational technology. Why and how did this happen? And are these types of activities really bad for students? Partly to blame, perhaps, is the rise of “constructivist only” learning theory in many educational circles. This idea, first proposed by psychologists like Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, posits that learners construct knowledge from their environment. Though the idea is old, it has really taken hold in our schools and teacher training programs in recent years and continues be one of the trendiest “edspeak” theories around, justifying all sorts of classroom activities such as cooperative learning, project-based-learning, inquiry-based math, and even emergent curriculum. It seems some educators are quick to cite “drill and kill” as the antithesis of quality, “authentic” education which sucks the life-force from students and teachers alike (Simpson, 2015; McTighe & Gross, 2017). Certainly, these are worthy classroom activities, and students benefit much from them, but these activities are not the only manner in which students learn or even construct knowledge. In fact, as some have suggested, constructivist learning theories do not have to be at odds with efforts at personalization and digitization that often result in more direct learning approaches (Hernandez, 2012). It is merely that the two ends of the spectrum must be better clarified. So where is the confusion exactly?
There is a distinction between true rote repetition, in which children parrot mindless information like automatons and deliberate practice, in which a skill is rehearsed in preparation for application in new settings. Research suggests that deliberate practice is essential for memory, automaticity, knowledge transfer, motivation, and mastery. It is also best when the learner receives prompt and helpful feedback (Brabeck, Jeffrey, & Fry, n.d.). This feedback is absolutely essential as student misconceptions must be cleared up quickly or simply avoided in the first place. Deliberate practice with ongoing feedback also yields results. When students are able to store their knowledge from past exposures in their long-term memory, they are then able to draw on this memory bank and quickly choose and apply the correct mental schema for the situation at hand (Clark, Kirschner, & Sweller, 2012). For example, an SAT-test taker who has taken several practice versions of the math test might immediately recognize a certain type of problem (from multiple past exposures) as being one in which a certain formula applies. This realization and connection happens almost instantly from the test-taker’s existing schema that associates this problem with a certain formula. The test-taker is then immediately able to dive into the problem without much conscious thought, saving valuable time and effort.
This is important because, like it or not, there will always be student assessment, and this assessment generally comes in the form of standardized tests which often rely on multiple choice response format because of the ease of grading and analyzing this data. While technology to score open-ended responses exists, the likelihood of it being used for state and nationwide high-stakes testing is likely only in the distant future. In spite of controversy, these tests are here to stay, and most rely on the multiple choice format. While there are a plethora of criticisms for multiple choice tests, they are designed to do two things well: determine what students know and don’t know and target instruction and interventions based on that data (Korsunsky, n.d.). This makes this type of delivery ideal for measuring progress and growth over time and looking at aggregate data for a class, school, or district. Teacher and student dashboards and portals integrated within many assessment practice platforms let the stakeholders know just what skills have been mastered and which need more work. This progress tracking helps students take ownership of learning and feel confident that their skills are building.
Even beyond primary and secondary education, students will encounter standardized tests in multiple choice formats throughout their journey into the workforce or higher education. The PRAXIS, MCAT, LSAT, and most other professional exams are given in multiple choice formats. Multiple choice standardized tests continue making their way into even more parts of the workplace as the new ACT National Career Readiness Certificate® and WorkKeys assessments ®are being used by more employers as demarcations of employability.
So if the research backs up giving students multiple opportunities for repetitive practice, why the push back? It seems that many in educational circles would sacrifice rigor for “feel good” learning. In reality, this does students a great disservice. When students are confident in their knowledge and able to see the progress of their learning, they are more confident, active learners able to internalize teacher praise though the obtainment of concrete goals. Even very young students can easily grasp an improvement from a 75% in week one to 85% mastery in week three. In spite of all its confidence-building, we must also admit that sometimes learning through deliberate practice is hard and not in line with the traditional definition of “fun.” This might mean that sometimes students need to use their inner-drive and perseverance, often called grit, to stay the course and continue to practice until they master a difficult concept. Students with grit have been found to have an average of a 4% higher success rate in educational attainment and GPA in college (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). It is most worthwhile that students be given opportunities to develop grit early in their education, especially if such opportunities are also helping them to create a vast storehouse of factual knowledge that can be instantly recalled and applied. As famed psychologist Carol Dweck further points out, students must have a growth mindset in which they are cognizant that their own hard work and perseverance is what will ultimately lead them to success. We must not rob students of their opportunity to work hard in a broad variety of educational situations.
Clearly, the efficacy of deliberate practice has been proven, and today’s classrooms must give students what they need to be successful. However, what this practice looks like has been dramatically reimagined through technology. Feedback to correct misconceptions comes at the click of a mouse, and very particular skills needing more practice can be honed in on with astounding accuracy. Long gone are the days of stacks of worksheets and the antiquated notion of “drill and kill.” Today’s students are able to practice in the most accessible, efficient, and personalized way ever imagined.
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