EduTwitter Tiffs: Drill-work

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 The other side said it was outdated and promotes mere rote memorization without helping with understanding.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. 

Basketball Drills

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

  • Procedures

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.

Get Drilling

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.

Citation
Schofield, H. (1972). The Philosophy of Education An Introduction. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Flashcards in the Classroom

In this brief article, I intend to explain how I will put my previous article (how and why flashcards are effective) into practice.

First, I started by teaching my students how to use flashcards. This is paramount! Do not assume they understand how to use them effectively. To model how to use flashcards I borrowed a student’s set and put it under the visualizer so the whole class could see.

First, I read the card.

“Hydrosphere.”

Then I modeled my thought process.

“Hmm. Hydrosphere, well, I know that hydro means water and I know that sphere means ball. Hmm. Earth is round and has water. Hmm. Water on Earth? Wait. All the water on Earth!”

Next, I flip the card over and check my answer.

“Awesome! I got it right. Ok, so now I will put this card into the correct pile.”

I move on to the next card.

“What causes convection currents in the geosphere?”

I model my thinking again.

“Hmm. Geosphere, well that is the Earth. Hmm. The wind causes convection currents because the sun heats the Earth unevenly.”

I flip the card over.

“Oh. I was wrong. Convection currents in the geosphere means inside of the Earth. Convection currents are actually caused by heat from the Earth’s core heats the rock and which makes it less dense so it rises. Then it cools, gains density, and falls.”

I put the card in an incorrect pile.

I then tell the students to finish the deck. Next, students need to go through the “incorrect” pile until all the cards are in the “correct” pile.

I tell my students that they must read the card and say the answer in their head before flipping the card over. I also give them a small printout that includes the steps.

Introducing New Flashcards

I introduce new KOs and flashcards on the last day of a unit because I give some sort of assessment, and when students finish they can pick up their KO and flashcards to get a head start on the new unit.

When students finish the assessment, they will turn it in and pick up a knowledge organizer (KO) and a flashcard sheet (or several) that includes vocabulary and concept Q&As based on the KO (I will explore how I make them in a future post. For now, just note that this has helped reduce my workload).

In order to assure that students actually cut out and use the flashcards, I will begin the next class by having students practice using their flashcards either by themselves or with a partner for 5-10 minutes. This approach allows me to give a quick check to see if they actually did the work and serves to get the students familiar with the chapter’s terms/concepts. A study by Kelly Grillo in 2011 found that flashcards can have a positive impact in a short amount of time, at least in terms of test scores.

One benefit I have found in implementing flashcards is that all my students are more familiar with the terms, and my more motivated students learn the entire chapter’s terms by the end of the first week. This has helped my class to engage with key concepts and to apply what we are learning on a deeper level. I have also found, both with KOs and flashcards that it improves how I use class time in the margins. If we finish a lesson early and there are a few minutes left, I can have students practice their flashcards or review their KO which helps reinforce what we are learning. Before I would ask if there were any questions or would ramble about what we were learning. Both can be useful and helpful, but they are not the best ways to spend class time.

I am sure that I will refine my methods in the future, but I am quite happy with how integrating KOs and flashcards has been so far.

Why Are Flashcards So Effective?

There are two types of flashcards, physical and digital. As for which type is better, there is evidence that goes both ways. However, a recent study (Dizon and Tang, 2017) found that both are essentially equally effective if students have been taught how to use them. For teachers, I think we are fine to use whatever type works better for our context. Don’t stress about which form to use, just make sure you teach your students how to use them.

Flashcards are effective because they force students to use the study strategy of retrieval practice. When applying retrieval practice to a flashcard, students read the cue (question) and then they must retrieve, from memory, the information (answer). Then students look at the other side of the card and get feedback on whether they were correct or not. Each time a student retrieves the information correctly, they are reconstructing the memory of that fact/concept. This reconstruction makes it easier for students to recall the relevant fact/concept in the future.

The formatting of flashcards also lends itself to spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is exactly what it sounds like, spacing the repetition of the material out. The meaning and impact of spaced repetition becomes more clear when contrasted with cramming, its opposite. Cramming can be somewhat effective at improving student performance, but it doesn’t help much for actual learning as most of what a student crams will be forgotten shortly after the test (Bjork, 2012). Spaced repetition helps with both test performance and actual learning.

Now for some hard data. Flashcards have been shown to improve student performance on tests. A study found that students who used flashcards to study for every test in an “Intro To Psyc” class much better than those who did not use flashcards (Golding, Wasarhaley, & Fletcher, 2012). Another reason that teachers should use flashcards is that subject-specific vocabulary is the strongest predictor of student performance on content-based assessments (Espin and Deno, 1995). A study done by Nate Kornell looked at flashcards and test scores found that for 90% of students, spacing out their practice was more effective than cramming (Kornell, 2011). The same Kornell study found that students who used a spaced repetition flashcard strategy scored over 30% higher than students who used a massing flashcard strategy. In this case, the massing strategy involved using a small deck of flashcards on specific topics (lessons), whereas the spaced repetition strategy used a large set of flashcards that included information for the whole chapter. This provides evidence that flashcards are more effective when they utilize the interleaving study strategy.

As teachers, we care about test performance (It is important!) but actual learning (putting information into long-term memory) matters more. I believe that the above information gives strong evidence for utilizing retrieval practice, spaced repetition, and interleaving as study/teaching strategies. I also think that flashcards can be a way to integrate these study strategies into a simple, effective, and student-friendly form.