Why Random Practice is Important

As educators, we often find ourselves in the uncomfortable position of trying to explain why students don’t seem to have learned what we know we’ve taught them. Economics instructors ask math instructors, “How come these students who have taken College Algebra still don’t understand slope?” Science teachers ask English instructors, “How come students still don’t understand basic grammar rules when they write in my science class?” The key here is to understand that students aren’t learning skills in a way that helps them to transfer the skills to new situations – the learners have compartmentalized the skill to a particular domain and it doesn’t get sufficient escape velocity due to lack of random or varied practice.

In sports, there has been some eloquent research showing that random practice leads to more transferrable and long-lasting skills than blocked practice. It’s worth taking a short dive into this research area.


The gains shown in blocked practice erode when we look at longer timelines. Random practice provides short-term gains AND holds up in the long-term.

Watch the 16-min video “Motor Learning: Blocked vs Random Practice” by Trevor Ragan. He does a lovely job of walking through some of the motor learning research that very eloquently shows that “random practice” is more effective for transference and long-term retention than “blocked practice.” This is basically the same concept as massed vs varied practice discussed in cognitive science.

If you’re interested in reading the research that Ragan touches on in the video, you can find some of it in these papers:

Shea, J. B., & Morgan, R. L. (1979). Contextual interference effects on the acquisition, retention, and transfer of a motor skill. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 5(2), 179.

Hall, K. G., Domingues, D. A., & Cavazos, R. (1994). Contextual interference effects with skilled baseball players. Perceptual and motor skills, 78(3), 835-841.

In education we are really good at having students practice the “Do” of the “Read, Play, Do” process that Ragan describes in the video. “Do” skills are orderly and easy to monitor and assess. How can we shift to the messier strategy of having students practice all three parts of the process? For students you teach, what is the equivalent to practicing basketball shots from a variety of distances with different blockers around them?

Weekly Teaching Challenge: Consider all the topics you teach next week and design one new activity that focuses on “random” practice instead of “blocked” practice.

If you’d like the weekly teaching challenge delivered to your inbox each Friday, sign up to receive the Challenge here.

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AMATYC Keynote Notes: Durable Learning

In the 2016 AMATYC keynote, I covered three main themes:

  1. Interaction & Impasse
  2. Challenge & Curiosity
  3. Durable Learning (this post)

Three triangles surrounding a central triangle with the letters C, I, and D

Here are references and resources for Durable Learning:

What is durable learning? The learning design practices that make learning “stick” over the long-term. These include (but are not limited to) spaced repetition, knowledge retrieval, interleaving, and varied practice.

A really good book on the subject of durable learning is “Make It Stick” by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel.

We also took a dive into some cognitive science and again, there is a fantastic, easy-to-read book I recommend “Cognitive Development and Learning in Instructional Contexts” by James Brynes.

We explored the idea of a schema – a mental representation of what all instances of something have in common (plural is schemata). In particular, schemata help you to categorize your experiences,  they help you remember what you are experiencing, they help you to comprehend what you are experiencing, and are important in developing the ability to problem solve.

Visual representation (with no numbers) of distribution - shown as a set of arcs

A schema for distribution

When confronted with a new situation, learners try to run a schema they already have. This leads to all sorts of interesting misconceptions.


By engaging the learner in varied practice, we hope to modify the existing schema.

No numbers representation of distribution with visual arcs and plus-minus signs to hold the spaces

A better mental schema for distribution because the spaces are now held by plus-minus signs

To help the learners refine schema, we can abandon massed practice for varied practice. In massed practice, the learner does nothing but activate the exact same schema over and over. In varied practice, the learner has to distinguish between different schemata in order to successfully complete the practice.


There is a lengthier talk I gave on cognitive science in the context of algebra called “Algebra is Weightlifting for the Brain” (not the world’s best recording, but you’ll hear more about the ideas of Information Processing Theory and see plenty of math examples).

We didn’t quite get to interleaving in the talk, but we will cover that during the teaching challenge.

What is the Teaching Challenge?

For the next year, I will send you a teaching challenge every week to help us, together, change the way students learn and engage. The challenge will be delivered each week by email and will include:

  1. Something to learn or ponder
  2. Best practices shared by participants in previous challenges
  3. A new challenge

Sign up for the teaching challenge here. All are welcome.

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AMATYC Keynote Notes: Interaction and Impasse

Thursday I had the honor of providing the opening keynote for the AMATYC Conference in Denver, “Learning Math is Not a Spectator Sport.” I expect the video of the talk will be available to share next week, and rather than provide the slides (124 mostly stick-figure drawings), I’ll point you to some resources that will likely give you the information you’re looking for between now and when the full presentation becomes available.

Selfie with room full of participants in the background

Keynote Selfie

We covered three main themes:

  1. Interaction & Impasse (this post)
  2. Challenge & Curiosity
  3. Durable Learning

I’ll provide resources for each of these categories, starting with Interaction and Impasse, in this post.

Interaction and Impasse


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Demo with a Magnifying Glass for MacBooks

If you own a Mac and do software demonstrations or do presentations for people, you might want to learn this nifty trick for enabling a magnifying glass that can follow your cursor. It’s incredibly useful when you need to magnify just a small section of the screen for a brief moment (magnify the URL, the icon you’re clicking on, the code you’re examining).


Here are the steps to locating and turning on the magnifying glass that follows your cursor in macOS Sierra:

Find the Zoom preferences window:

  • Go to System Preferences
  • Select Accessibility
  • Select the “Zoom” section


To make a magnifying glass:

  • Select the box next to “Use keyboard shortcuts to zoom”
  • Select the box “Zoom follows keyboard focus”
  • Change “Zoom Style” to “Picture-in-picture”


To change the size of the magnifying box:

  • To the right of “Zoom Style” click on the “Options” button.
  • Click on the “Adjust Size and Location” button.
  • Drag the edges of the example magnifying box that appears until the box is the size you want. Then click OK in the center.


To change the magnification power:

  • To the right of “Zoom Style” click on the “Options” button.
  • Drag the slider next to “Magnification” to the desired power.


To use the magnifying glass

  • Press Cmd-Opt-8 to turn it on (it will follow your cursor).
  • Press Cmd-Opt-8 to turn it off.

Maybe you prefer your tutorials in video form, in which case, here you go!


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Learning from Human Tutoring

One of my favorite journal articles from the last few years is Learning from Human Tutoring by Michelene T.H. Chi, Stephanie A. Siler, Heisawn Jeong, Takashi Yamauchi, and Robert G. Hausmann (published in Cognitive Science, 2001).


It’s an incredibly well-designed study and the article was originally passed to me by a friend who also found it to be insightful. The premise of the study is to try to learn why human tutoring is so effective by examining three hypotheses:

  • Is it because the tutor is so knowledgeable and knows how to instruct? (T-hypothesis)
  • Is it because the student has more self-corrective behavior and constructive engagement? (S-hypothesis)
  • Is it because there is more interaction? (I-hypothesis)

One of the key findings in this paper is that students learn more when tutors supress their explanations and feedback and students were allowed to construct their own responses. One of the (maybe) surprising findings is that students learned just as much (actually a bit more deeply) when the tutors were restricted from sharing knowledge during the sessions.

I’ve sent a lot of folks to read this paper and I need to confess that it is 63 pages in length, and a fairly technical read. So, here’s a small experiment. I think that every good journal article about learning should be accompanied by a video (or videos) that helps someone to understand the hypothesis, the experiment, the results, and the potential practical implications.

Derek Bitter, an instructional designer who worked on my learning design team at WGU, translated this particular paper into a series of three 6-minute videos as the capstone project for his Masters degree.

I’ve always disliked how those outside of academia get locked out of access to scholarly journal articles (consider all the edupreneurs building software to “improve” learning that have no easy access to learning research articles). One of the passion projects I’ve been considering is working through a large stack of scholarly articles about learning science and translating them into videos or shorter-form discussions of the results for practical application. Let us know if you like the format? busynessgirl@gmail.com and dbitter@gmail.com

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