How to Guide Students Through Their Practice

Immediate feedback needs to be provided or bad habits will take hold

By Scott Sterling

By now, we’re all familiar with the gradual release model, sometimes shortened to I do; We do; You do. It just makes sense for teachers to help students acquire new skills using some form of this method.

That being said, it can be argued that the I do phase is the easiest for the teacher to implement, while the other two require some experience.

We do takes some feel as to how much of the skill should be performed by the teacher and how much by the student (hence the term gradual). You do can be a struggle for some students and not for others. That’s where differentiation comes into play.

Our latest book in the Essentials for Achieving Rigor series, Practicing Skills, Strategies, & Processes: Classroom Techniques to Help Students Develop Proficiency, helps break those two phases of the gradual release process into workable strategies that add purpose to your craft.

Guided practice can be broken into three ordered parts: close monitoring, worked examples, and frequent structured practice.

Close Monitoring

Obviously, this phase is made up of observation. Students practice and you watch closely. That being said, students should be praised when they get close to mastery and corrected immediately if they veer too far off-course. This isn’t a hands-off period. Immediate feedback needs to be provided or bad habits will take hold, even in the early stages. How long can this take? That’s where differentiation comes in.

Worked Examples

Think of a worked example as a step-by-step guide to performing the task, just like IKEA instructions. They don’t expect you to be able to put together that entertainment center without some scaffolded assistance. Worked examples can take many forms, the most common being the guides in math textbooks on how to work a certain function. Increasingly, teachers are turning toward online videos for their worked examples, particularly in the flipped classroom model.

Frequent Structured Practice

Repetition and regularity are important when practicing anything. That’s even truer for the developing brain of a student. As we discussed with close monitoring, the time you devote to these strategies can vary, but what shouldn’t vary is how much each practice instance takes. Think in terms like five minutes each for three repetitions.

During independent practice, there are also three unique strategies: fluency practice, varied practice, and practice before an assessment.

Fluency Practice

We often talk about fluency in terms of language acquisition, taking it to mean that a person no longer has to think consciously about speaking their new language. The same goes for any new skill. Fluency actually consists of two different processes.

  • Automatic processing is not having to think when performing the skill (such as writing)
  • Controlled processing is knowing a process by heart but still having to think about it (like writing an essay)


Varied Practice

This is you taking the training wheels off and introducing variables into what was until now a very predictable process for the learner. This is basically the opposite of worked examples. What happens when the IKEA furniture only comes with three screws you need instead of four? 

Practice Before Tests

Practice before tests needs to be just as structured as practice during lessons. As usual, it comes down to formative assessment. In which of the skills in which they will be tested are they still lacking fluency? Schedule more sessions in that skill based on where their skills lie in the first five steps of practice.

For more about these six practice steps, including detailed scenarios on how they work in both elementary and secondary settings, check out our latest book in the Essentials for Achieving Rigor series, Practicing Skills, Strategies, & Processes: Classroom Techniques to Help Students Develop Proficiency.

We believe that the most important thing a teacher or leader can do is to fuel each student’s passion for learning. When this is achieved, a lifetime of accomplishment becomes possible for that learner. Through partnerships with schools and districts throughout the country, we help educators and leadership transform each classroom into a powerful learning environment that prepares students for lasting success in school, the global workplace, and beyond. Our vision for the future is big and bright, and we love helping schools get there. Learn more about Learning Sciences International.

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