Deep Practice, Leveling, and Communication

Does a student know that they are confused and can they express that to their teacher? We need formative assessment and self-assessment to go hand-in-hand.

I agree that formative self-assessment is the key. Often, I think students don’t take the time to assess if they understand or are confused. I think that it is routine and “easy” in class. The student is practicing just like they’ve been coached in real time. When they get home, do they “practice like they play” or do they just get through the assignment? I think that is where deep practice comes into play. If they practice without assessing (checking for success) will they promote their confusion?  I tell my students that it is like practicing shooting free throws with your feet perpendicular to each other. Terrible form does not promote success. Zero practice is better than incorrect practice.

With that being said, I think that teachers must have realistic expectations about time and quality of assignments. If we expect students to engage in deep practice (to embrace the struggle) then we have to shorten our assignments to accommodate the additional time it will take to engage in the struggle.  We now ask students to complete anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 as many problems as in the past with the understanding that these problems will be attempted using the method of deep practice. 

Our version of deep practice homework:
“We have significantly shortened this assignment from years past in order to allow you time to work these questions correctly. We want you do work with deep practice.

  • Please work each problem slowly and accurately.
  • Check the answer to the question immediately.
  • If correct, go to the next problem.
  • If not correct, mark through your work – don’t eraseleave evidence of your effort and thinking.
    • Try again.
    • If you make three attempts and can not get the correct answer, go on to the next problem. “

I am intrigued by what deep practice might look like in other classrooms and/or disciplines.  In ¡Inglés fatal!, TSadtler is starting to write about deep practice and what it might look like with his students.  (The 13-year prologue post that includes his first mention of deep practice including the powerful questions “Can I do this and will it result in meaningful, ‘well-myelinated’ learning for my kids?”)

I also think that the formative assessments with “leveling” encourage the willingness to struggle. How many times has a student responded to you “I don’t get it”? Perhaps it is not a lack of effort. Perhaps it is a lack of connected vocabulary. It is not only that they don’t know how, is it that they don’t know what it is called either. It is hard to struggle through when you lack vocabulary, skill, and efficacy all at the same time.

Now is the time to give them voice, confidence (and trust), and a safe place to struggle.

Assessment does not always have to carry a grade. Learning should not be punitive. If the struggle causes a student to learn, that struggle should be rewarded.


  1. Jill,
    I love the instructions you give for deep practice. This really helps my thinking of how to get kids to do this in my classes. I’ve already reduced homework significantly, and given similar verbal directions, but this is so much clearer. Any chance you could post some examples of work students do when given these directions?


  2. Very helpful reflections on deep practice. I like the concept of less is more provide the more is accompanied by deep practice. While you didn’t specifically indicate that you instruct students on the techniques of deep practice, I assume in the classroom you model what it means or what it looks like to do deep practice. When I see students work (in the past), I always felt they needed strategies to work through the anxiety of “not finding the right answer.” The personal qualities are often at the heart of whether a student gets through the anxiety and stays connected to the work. What are your thoughts?



  3. I’m drawn to the idea of deep practice, deep learning, deep thinking — as an alternative to the surface-y, hurried, get-to-the-right-answer tendency we’ve all drifted toward in the past. It’s more laborious, more time-consuming, more thought-intensive, more complex, and harder to grade — but it has to lead to deeper reflection, deeper “success,” and a deeper awareness of how knowledge is formed over time.


    • I agree that deep practice is more labor intensive and more time-consuming. My students are struggling to learn to practice this way. They have 8 years of practice geared toward getting the “right” answer and getting through the assignment as quickly as possible. Now, I am asking them to change their routine. Some students are learning this process faster (better?) than others. Parents of students that really practice deep practice report positive perceptions about increases in confidence and understanding.

      I have now seen deep practice applied on an assessment. Example of deep practice in practice


      ES could tell me that she didn’t distribute the (-1) on her first attempt to solve this system of equations. (Notice that she caught that error herself and noted it with an arrow.) It was so great! She just beamed with delight; this was her first “A” test on a first chance test.

      So, while I agree with you that this method could be harder to grade, it can also make it easier to grade once students get past the implementation dip. If their communication and work is easier to read and decode (and more accurate), then the grading is at least more pleasant, more fun, more joyful.


  4. still trying to work leveled assessment into my practice, and visited your blog history today for some reminders. I am encouraged (by administrators, and by a state testing system) to cover a set curriculum with a vast array of topics, which I think is getting in the way of deep practice. I need to find places to slow down for depth of understanding.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.