Step 4 — Creating Opportunities for Students to Practice Essential Mental Operations and Receive Feedback

To help students overcome most bottlenecks to learning, it is necessary to augment modeling (Step 3) with opportunities for them to practice these steps and to receive feedback on the extent to which they have mastered each. Here are some things to bear in mind when creating occasions for practice:

  • This practice can come in a wide variety of forms — brief in-class assignments or Classroom Assessment Techniques, on-line exercises, collaborative tasks, etc.  Just-in-Time Teaching and Team-Based Learning have proven to be particular useful approaches to consider for this step.
  •  It is important that the exercises initially be focused on a particular mental operation that is problematic for many students.  Complex tasks, which require the simultaneous application of multiple skills, can confuse students and do not provide them specific feedback on their mastery of particular operations.  Once individual skills are clearly mastered, then an instructor can give them more complex assignments that allow them to practice the integration of multiple operations.
  • With challenging operations it may be necessary to give students multiple opportunities for practice in a variety of forms.
  • Practice exercises should be arranged in logical order and integrated with modeling, so that the two steps reinforce one another.
  • Practice can often be integrated with crucial content from the course, so that the work on skills also increases student understanding of the particular material that is used as examples in the exercise.
  • Students should generally receive some form of information about the extent to which they are succeeding at the essential task that they are practicing.  This can come in the form of specific comments on their individual attempts to do the tasks that they have been assigned, or the instructor may discuss typical examples of successful or unsuccessful student work using techniques of Just-in-Time teaching.
  • Students need to understand the reason for the practice.  They should understand that it offers them a chance to find out where they have gained mastery of essential steps and where they still need work with minimal negative impact on their grade.

Examples of Practice Exercises from Decoded Courses

The Need to Deal with Emotional Bottlenecks

  • Steps 1-4 of the Decoding process can be ineffective if there is significant emotional resistance to the learning process or to the content of the course.  Therefore, it is necessary to address potential affective bottlenecks in Step 5.