Recently there was another EduTwitter Tiff. This one was about drill-work in schools. Essentially, one side was saying that drill work serves a useful purpose. The other side said it was outdated and promotes mere rote memorization without helping with understanding.
The meaning of a drill is relatively straightforward. But to make things explicit, here is how an education researcher defined ‘drill’. Schofield (1972) defined drill as “the formation of good or bad habits through regular practice of stereotyped exercises.”
If we can agree on the definition above, it is clear that drills on their own are neither good nor bad. It depends on how they are used.
Sports are famous for their drill-work. Steph Curry has his own MasterClass full of shooting, dribbling, and passing drills. It should be obvious with a bit of thinking that drills have proven themselves to be an important factor is Steph Curry’s ability on the courts, and it takes only the tiniest bit of transfer to see how drills are valuable for anyone in sports, whether a beginner (a young child) or an expert (Steph Curry).
As education is primarily a mental activity, the value of drill-work is less obvious than in sports, but no less important. In education, drills play an important role in learning facts, concepts, and procedures.
- Facts and Concepts
Drills are great for memorizing facts and concepts. *Flashcards are a classic example of drill-work in education. Flashcards and all other types of drilling are effective because they combine spaced practice (practicing over time) with retrieval practice (calling something to mind). These are two of the most studied and most effective learning strategies.
*both physical and digital flashcards are effective
Drills are also great for learning procedures. If you teach young children, you have probably taught them how to clean up, line up, etc. Teaching these procedures involves drill-work. You say a statement and demonstrate it, then the students follow your lead.
But drill-work is useful for more than physical procedures. We can (and should) use drills to help students learn academic procedures as well.
When students are learning to write the alphabet, we give them drill sheets to practice writing. We give memorization drills when we require students to memorize PEMDAS. We give application drills when we give students order of operations worksheets.
More Than Memorization
Done halfway well, drilling leads to much more than rote memorization, it leads to understanding and transfer. The research backs this up. If we want understanding and transfer, then we ought to incorporate drilling into our teaching.
Feedback: The Secret Ingredient
Drills on their own will not make you into a basketball star or a scholar. Going through the drills did not make Steph Curry a basketball star. His being focused while going through the drills coupled with receiving actionable feedback and then working to immediately act on said feedback helped make him a basketball star.
Learning works the same way. If we do not incorporate actionable feedback into our drills, then we will be helping some students develop and ingrain bad habits.
My Stance on Drilling
We should regularly use drill-work in our classes. Drill to kill ignorance and inability. Drill to thrill by unlocking possibilities and unleashing creativity.
When we drill for facts, concepts, and procedures we are killing ignorance by helping students gain knowledge. This is also a key step in destroying inability because drills are focused and explicit, helping students gain the ability to read/write/apply concepts more quickly.
Once our drill-work has killed ignorance and inability, we are able to use it to thrill. Drill-work is thrilling not because it is always exciting in and of itself, rather, drill-work is thrilling because it leads to the ability to thrill.
The hours of drill-work Steph Curry and Lebron James put in behind the scenes are a large reason we find it thrilling to watch them play basketball. Likewise, drill-work unlocks academic thrills because it unlocks possibilities. The more we know about facts and concepts, the more likely we are to use them in creative, cohesive ways. The knowledge and abilities provided by the drill-work helps unlock our students’ creative potential.
If we want our students to succeed, we should drill them, give them feedback, and give them many opportunities to respond to said feedback. This dovetails nicely with research on explicit instruction that I have tried to summarize here.
If your whole teaching process can be summed up as drill-work, you are a bad teacher because teaching is so much more than drilling. However, if you avoid drill-work, then you are not helping your students as much as you could be. That is also a problem. So, get drilling, judiciously.
Schofield, H. (1972). The Philosophy of Education An Introduction. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.