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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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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Why prototype a digital course?

Very few of us would buy an unbuilt home without at least viewing a model home that conveys the look and feel of the interior and exterior of the rest of the community. We should be unwilling to build (or buy) an entire course (a “row” of units, modules, chapters, or weeks of content) without seeing at least one “model unit” first.


From http://www.houzz.com/photos/36213135

In the software world, a low-fidelity prototype is used to give the look and feel of a future product. With this prototype there is some hand-waving (mockups) to explain away missing functionality and potential users are asked how they would navigate and use the product. This happens long before the product build, and is iterative.

In the learning world, we should consider that course builds (especially large-scale digital courseware) need the same kind of prototype.  Before the time and money is invested to build the a full course, consider building one unit as completely as possible, and make sure your stakeholders (students, faculty, instructional designers, deans, customers) actually want to learn in this course.  Choose a prototype unit that is most representative of the majority of the learning in course; this is usually not the first or last unit.

When the model unit is being designed and built, this is the ideal time to collaborate iteratively with students, faculty, IT, assessment, and instructional designers. While it will take some time to change the model unit as opinions shift, it will not take as much time as remodeling every unit in the course.

After you’ve got stakeholder approval for the model unit design, make sure to carefully document what features this prototype contains, since your team will need to apply it consistently across the full development. Here are just a few of the learning features you might want to apply across your multi-unit build:

  • content: where did it come from? what quantity per learning objective?
  • examples: how often, how relevant?
  • interaction: how much, what kind, and how often?
  • assessment: what kind? how often? authentic? purely for practice? for learning scaffolding?
  • images: for what purpose, how often?
  • videos: how long are they, what stylistic elements are there, how often do they occur?
  • simulations or games: for what purpose? how often?

As digital learning becomes more accepted (thanks MOOCs) and blended learning becomes a more standard model at traditional institutions, I hope we’ll see much more collaborative prototyping, followed by intentional design, in these courses.

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Instructional Design for Vocabulary in Higher Ed (Part 1)

Part I: Tiers of Vocabulary and General Education

In many courses in higher education, we have a need for the students to learn a new set of vocabulary. Vocabulary words can be broken into three tiers (the following are the definitions from Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2013):

Tier One: Words typically found in oral language.

Tier Two: Wide-ranging words of high utility for literate language users.

Tier Three: Words limited to a specific domain.

While there are three (simple) tiers of vocabulary, and these are often depicted in a pyramid or a cake with three levels, I think the learning of vocabulary is much more complex than that, especially as a student acquires the very domain-specific vocabulary of their future career. I prefer to think of the tiers as a more complicated structure of garden tiers, where the plants from one tier might intermingle with other tiers as priorities shift for the learner.

Landscaped tiers containing a variety of garden plants.

Let’s assume that Tier 1 words are what a college student picks up in K-12 education. For solid instructional design of assessments (both formative and summative) in higher education, first consider whether the vocabulary should be learned at the level of Tier 2 or Tier 3.  You might think of this as the difference between teaching to recognize a word and identifying some general connections to it or teaching to recall a word with specifics of function/definition.

As an example of this critical design thinking, let’s do a brief analysis for a set of biology vocabulary for a general education biology course:

  • cytoplasm
  • mitochondrion
  • cell
  • nucleus
  • nucleolus
  • vacuole
  • virus
  • chlorophyll
  • chromosome
  • chloroplast

Pay attention, because in this context of general education, the highest cognitive-level learning objectives do not occur at the highest vocabulary tier.

Tier 1 (words typically found in oral language): cell, virus

Most likely, college students already have common knowledge of how these two Tier 1 words are used in context, but they may lack specific details on how we differentiate between the words. For example, a student may understand both a cell and a virus to be very small structures in the body that carry genetic material but not understand the differences between them. In a college course, you may want to focus learning objectives for already-acquired Tier One vocabulary on differentiation of these words from other common language words, a deeper dive into the understanding of the word, or on how these words relate to other newly acquired higher-tiered vocabulary.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Compare the structures in a virus and a cell.
  • List the types of cells.
  • Identify the organelles that are often found in a cell.

Tier 2 (wide-ranging words of high utility for literate language users): nucleus, chromosome, chlorophyll

Even if this is a general education biology course, it is likely that students will hear, read, and use these Tier 2 words again during their lives. High-utility means we should try to help the student learn the words at a permanent recall/mastery level (understanding both definition and context).  Learning objectives should be focused on definition (with relevance, like function), characteristics, and comprehension in context.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Describe the function of the nucleus.
  • Describe the function of chlorophyll.
  • Locate the nucleus, nucleolus, and mitochondrion in a cell.
  • Explain how a plant cell benefits from its chlorophyll.
  • Describe the structure of chromosomes in the human body.
  • Explain the function of chromosomes during human reproduction.

Tier 3 (words limited to a specific domain): cytoplasm, mitochondrion, nucleolus, vacuole, chloroplast

In a general education biology class, it might be important to recognize Tier 3 words and their functions, but it may not be necessary to recall specific definitions of the word or store it in long-term memory past the end of the course. Remember that biology majors that take this general education course will take more biology courses. Each subsequent biology course will provide opportunities for repeated vocabulary retrieval and in-depth learning. A general education course is not the time to drill in every property.  The learning objectives for Tier 3 words in a general education course should focus on the recognition-level with enough comprehension to make sense of the context in which the vocabulary words appear. These learning objectives should also focus on how the Tier Three words relate to lower-tiered words, since that is what will help the learning do sense-making around context.

Example Learning Objectives:

  • Identify the function of the mitochondrion, nucleus, and nucleolus.
  • Label the chlorophyll, chloroplast, and vacuole in a plant cell.
  • Select the organelles that might appear in a plant or animal cell.

As the student moves from general education to a majors-oriented biology course, the learning objectives should also shift and scaffold to support the deeper learning requirements. In this example, Tier 2 vocabulary should be treated as known by the student, but needing further differentiation. Tier 3 vocabulary should be learned to the recall level (instead of recognition). In addition, we ask students to do more sense-making with higher-order concepts while using the acquired vocabulary (even though we no longer mention the vocabulary by name).

Stay tuned for Part II of this series on Instructional Design for Vocabulary in Higher Ed, where we will start to focus on designing digital interaction to teach vocabulary.

Note: I’m not 100% sure that cell and virus would be considered Tier 1 vocabulary words, but it seems to me that these are the most obvious candidates from the example list provided.  Both words appear in the Merriam-Webster Learners Dictionary (which provides definitions in simple English). If you know of a definitive source for Tier 1 vocabulary words online, please let me know.

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