Getting Better: Practice Makes Permanent

This summer, on Tuesdays, the Jolly Librarian is going to examine ways that we can improve our learning. Notice that I wrote learning, not grades. Every student knows that there can be a world of difference between learning a subject and making a passing grade in it. Still learning to learn better should result in better grades. 

Tip 1: Practice makes permanent. In the book Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi point out that practice does not necessarily perfect a skill, but it does make that skill permanent. This is, of course, a double-edged sword. If you are practicing the right thing, then all is well and good. But if you are not learning from your mistakes and just repeating them, then you have simply perfected an error-ridden skill that is probably going to cause you problems down the road. 

For example, in my sophomore year of high school, some bizarre scheduling left me in a PE section with only one other girl. So we went out to the tennis courts each day and basically taught ourselves to play. I think I had some natural talent, and I wanted to join the team. But I was never any good. I had practiced the wrong way on backhands and serves for so long that it would have taken the rest of my high school career to unlearn those wrong skills and then build up the right ones. And since I couldn’t do the basic things right, it was impossible to move to more advanced moves. 

A former colleague of mine would hand back essays to her students and watch as they glanced at the grade, smiled, frowned, or cursed, and then quickly put the papers in their notebooks. Finally, she pleaded with them, “I spend hours writing feedback on your papers that will help you improve. At least pretend to read it.” Looking only at the grade and not the   areas that need improvement will mean the same mistakes will show up again and again.

Sometimes when students make bad grades, they’ll say, “But I worked so long on this.” Unfortunately, working long and hard on doing something incorrectly leads to the incorrect way becoming a habit. 

So practice only makes perfect when practicing the right things. So make sure you understand the skill before you practice it.



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