Science of Learning

Drill and Kill? Or Drill for Skill?

This post is part of a series on the Science of Learning Physics

A few weeks ago Frank Noschese posted this question on twitter

Some of you may recognize the diagrams as coming from curriculum, which, I will admit upfront I have a big bias towards because the site is developed and maintained by one of my favorite teachers at the high school I attended. As a students I felt the website really bolstered by comprehension of physics and I continue to refer students and teachers to it.

However, if you’ve been following my posts, particularly this one, you will have read about the importance of creating “desirable difficulties” through spacing and interleaving problem types and topics. There are also some great methods out there to help students scaffold their problem-solving process to get them to take advantage of the metacognitive process so they can begin to think more like experts in their approach.

As such, this type of practice looks like the antithesis of good learning! The problems are fill in the blanks! Every problem is the same! Do any of these problems even have real meaning to the student?

So back to the question, what role do these types of problems serve?

Chapter 5 of Daniel Willingham’s Book, Why Don’t Students Like School is dedicated to the value of drill work. Drill work has gotten a bad name in the age of NGSS and common core as we push for deeper thinking and learning. However, when we practice skills repeatedly so they can become habit or second-nature, that frees up space in our working memory to focus on more difficult tasks that require deeper thinking.

We discussed earlier that the very reason novices struggle with seeing the bigger picture and conversing with themselves while they solve a problem is simply because no part of that problem is second-nature, it is all coming from working memory. A beautiful example Willingham uses is tying your shoes. Do you remember when you first learned how to do this fine-motor task? Now you can likely tie your shoes without stopping your conversation, and maybe don’t even remember you did it! Another example is driving a car. Did you ever find yourself at your destination, not quite sure how you arrived because your mind was so preoccupied with literally everything else except driving?

Your working memory has a finite limit and there’s not much you can do about it. However, when we commit processes such that they are automated, we free up some RAM, so to speak. This is where the above practice is, in fact, an excellent tool. When we drill students, we allow certain processes to automate so that they can focus on more complex ones. Consider what kinds of processes are automatic for yourself when solving these problems. You probably don’t think much about the mass-gravitational force calculation and that normal will be equal in all of these cases and you likely know immediately the direction of acceleration. Each of these would be good for a student to also have automated.

At the same time, these exercises can not be the sole mode of practice and instruction. This type of drill work should be reserved only when we are hoping to embed skills in our students in which automation will help them with more challenging tasks. However, when this type of practice is paired with retrieval, interleaving and spaced practice, it can be a powerful way for students to begin to recognize underlying structures of the problems which will provide them a solid foundation upon which to build their learning.

By the way! Drilling doesn’t have to look like a worksheet of identical problems! Check out Kelly Oshea’s Whiteboard Speed dating! It’s a phenomenal activity for several reasons, but at it’s core it’s making students do the same problem repeatedly, but in a fun way.

Questions for Consideration

  1. What skills deserve drilling in each topic?
  2. What skills have you drilled that should get shifted to “desirable difficulty” exercises?


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