To Practice or Not To Practice

“Don’t Practice till you get it right. Practice till you can’t get it wrong”

Practice is all it takes to get better at mathematics – we often hear this. Is it right? Does it work? Can we improve how we do it? To address this issue I will divide it into two different situations – practice for students who will write IB/IGCSE/AP/National exams versus practice for students who have not reached that stage yet.

Practice for students in primary, middle and those not yet in “exam-years” is beneficial if it is guided and the problems are at appropriate level. Students working through ten questions based on negative numbers and being completely unware that all their solutions are incorrect are not learning much mathematics-these students need intervention and should first work to build understanding. Practice through homework that teachers assign and “discuss” in class is effective – the discussion is a must. Independent work at home on which students can get help from a classmate, parent or teacher can build the required in-depth understanding and assist in retention of the concept . I have been reading the book “Mathematical Mindset” by Jo Boaler – it is a good read for parents along with teachers even though I do not agree with her on everything. She mentions that practice helps when problems are challenging and I agree completely with that. So practice is useful but it should be guided for the younger students.

Now, consider the group that has to sit for the BIG EXAM – here practice of past papers after going through concepts either in school or at home is really helpful. Again, ensuring that the work is being corrected – through online available mark schemes or with a teacher’s help or discussion with classmates or a parent is essential to ensure that understanding is being build. In the end the questions on the exam will not be from one of the past papers rather it will just be similar in style. I like to do past paper questions as a part of assigned classwork and homework and discuss them. I also like to do these in classroom as I have the tools to look at the exam technique and lets be real – students to need these exam tips. So yes, students should use the exam-style questions to practice but only after getting a good understanding of the concepts and ensure that they have the means to correct their work.

So next time you see a student sitting at her/his desk claiming to practice – don’t translate this to achievement as practice is meaningful only if their is guidance and intervention to ensure in-depth understanding – younger children prefer teachers’ and parents’ help whereas the older students might prefer peers or internet (again, they should ensure that it does have good and correct information). While practicing, if they realize they need to review the big ideas, I like the Khan Academy Videos but there are some good textbooks too.

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