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Why Drill and Skill are Necessary in Education

I am a very creative person.  I love discovering, thinking, designing, and having a finished product to show.  I learn this way. Before I can create to demonstrate knowledge, I need to build a good foundational understanding.  Lately I have notice that “drill and skill” are getting a bad reputation in the education community.  Drill and skill games are sometimes seen as a waste of time, a memorization of unnecessary facts, or a lesser use of computer time.  I believe that drill and skill has an important place in education, particularly in the primary years where basics of learning are built.  These activities give students an opportunity to practice a skill and become familiar with it before creating with it.  Drill and skill games and activities give students room to find patterns and build understanding.  Consider a lesson on homophones, we could just ask students to create illustrations of each word using a program like Tux Paint and upload them to a presentation or class wiki.  But without some drill and skill practice, students may not have solidified their understanding of the concept.  They will most likely complete the assignment, but because they haven’t practiced the skill first, they haven’t had adequate time or interaction with the concept to recognize patterns and make connections.  If we begin with some drill and skill, students create with a more solid base of understanding that can then be built upon.  We offer the student the light-bulb moment when they start to recognize patterns or connections in content.    The mistake that is often made in education is the belaboring of drill and skill.  We burn students out with the constant fact practice, never giving the chance to actually do something meaningful with those patterns they have discovered in learning.  I am finding that, as in everything in life, learning requires a balance.  Don’t completely cut drill and skill from your classroom and don’t go overboard with it.  Give students an opportunity to practice the skills that they are learning, and then allow them to do something with them.

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35 Comments

  1. Totally agree with everything you are saying Kelly. There are some children where drill and skill are the only way that they are going to remember where for others it is totally boring. We need to make sure that we cater for the individual and their differing ways of learning.

  2. I would love to see some current research findings that support your claims on “Drill and Skill” or as many refer to them “Drill and Kill” learning activities. On a cognitive scale, Drill and Skill/memorization activities are some of the lowest of the low level learning activities. Much of the research on Meta Cognition, Constructivism, and Social Schema Connectivism that I have read suggest that higher level learning activities are perfectly appropriate for entry level or newbie learners and that they are much more effective than “Drill and Skill” at developing a deeper understanding of content knowledge. The research on these learning theories also suggest that such approaches to learning are more “time” efficient compared to the learning outcomes of Drill and Skill. I always have room to learn and am open to new and different points of view. I would love to read the information that brought you to the conclusions/opinions presented in this post. I for one feel that if I want my students to construct knowledge and create new content, I’m going to approach the curriculum from a much higher level of learning than Drill and Skill offers.

  3. If I could give you a standing ovation, I would! There are some skills, such as addition and subtraction with regrouping, that just simply need skill/drill (aka… practice) in order for the student to own the knowledge.

  4. I agree, skill and drill is important, building foundational knowledge essential. But you have managed to combine that time tested method with something fun and attractive to students.

  5. I agree with you that drill and skill should not be vilified but should be coupled with more creative tasks. In technology education/educational technology, this is why it is important to integrate technology in the curriculum, and not just teach it in a separate class. In cases where there are no isolated computer classes (or sometimes even when there is), teachers must realize that students may need to learn/use/explore/experience/experiment with the same technology on more than one occassion.

  6. Agreed – our elementary students spend a lot of time learning skills that they must practice until they become more automatic. Once they become more automatic we can then apply that learning to new situations. This is procedural knowledge – steps in a process. We teach a lot of procedural knowledge when we’re teaching kids how to use technology tools. Once they learn, for example, that they can mouse over a tool on the toolbar in Word to see what the tool is for, they can apply that to other software or online tools where the mouse over will help them too. Once they learn how to use the drawing and painting tools well in KidPix, then can use those skills and apply them to another drawing program like TuxPaint and so on.

    The danger, as you say, is in totally burning kids out on the drill the skill kinds of activities without ever giving them a new situation in which to apply those skills. There have, over the years, also been many games online for kids to “practice” math skills where they had to do nothing more than just keep clicking until they got the right answer and could go on. Those are the kinds of skill drills that I always had a problem with. I see that beginning to change though – seems like more games require kids to really figure out their answers in order to go forward. I like that feature in CarrotSticks – kids can’t move forward with another problem until they really figure out the solution to the one they’re on.

    Long response I know – this topic is near and dear… Thanks!

  7. First I want to say, what happens when “research” is in conflict with what we see on a daily basis when working with children? How do we reconcile the two?
    The research I have seen focuses on “Drill and Kill” as the only method of learning. If you will re-read my post, I am not recommending this and do not think that learning is effective when it is singularly focused on drill. You are right, on the cognitive scale drill and skill memorization is low. And yet, it is still a necessary building block of knowledge. Drill and skill offers students the opportunity to practice their findings. I believe in a constructivist approach to learning. Students should be given opportunities to construct, discover and build knowledge. However, after they have made that discovery they need some time to sit with it and work with it. Practice it. Drill and skill exercises allow them time to put to test what they have learned. When students play drill and skill games on the computer, they are given immediate feedback, this is important in the learning process. We all have to have time to practice our learning, when learning building block concepts this is especially necessary. Then, after students have had the time to practice and solidify their understanding of a concept, they can use the knowledge to create something new. To demonstrate understanding. I believe leaving out the practice is a mistake. Creation is a higher level learning activity and I think one that needs to be met…but without the lower level meta cognition, what steps do students have to arrive at the higher level? The deeper understanding comes only after a rudimentary understanding has occurred. Drill provides room for this basic understanding and grasping of concepts to happen.
    As for the current research supporting my claims, it is being done on a regular basis in my classroom. Unfortunately I don’t have the dollars to pay someone to take these findings and “officially” publish them for me. In my own teaching experience with primary students, they learn much more thoroughly when they are given time to discover and construct knowledge, test out their findings in drill and skill games on the computer where they are provided immediate feedback, and then taking it to the next level of learning by demonstrating their knowledge and creating something with it.
    When we talk about learning there is the process of discovering something new and then the mastering of what one discovers. Drill and skill is part of this mastery process.
    When I think about the learning process I think about it in its most pure form out of school and the structure of education. Think about a baby learning to speak. They discover that speaking produces certain results. And so they listen to it, and think about it, and then give it a try. What do they do next? They try it over and over and over again. They practice and receive delighted feedback from the adults in their lives, and practice some more. This practicing is drill. After they have said a word over and over and begun to master it, then they go on to using it with other words and creating something new.
    Drill can’t be the end of learning, but I have seen in my own work with students, that it is a necessary step in learning. Some students require more practice than others. I have had students who spend one minute with drill and are ready to show what they know, I have had other students who need to sit in the drill stage for longer until they have practiced enough to move on to mastery.

  8. Diane, near and dear for me too. I have seen drill programs do wonders for a students confidence so that they can move on to the higher cognition skills. They have to be given room to practice and work with knowledge before we can expect them to do anything with it. Obviously touched some nerves with this one 🙂

  9. Thank you Ms. President. The idea here is balance. Drill can’t be a end all and be all, but it also can’t be completely eliminated from the learning process.

  10. Todd, it is hard to build foundational knowledge without being able to practice it. It may be a lower level skill but as you say the foundation is essential to learning.

  11. As a former teacher of elementary school students and a parent of elem. age kids, I agree 100%. There are many skills introduced at a young age that cannot simply be mastered without repetition.

  12. I went to a workshop this week on concept based learning, which underpins the PYP (IBO primary years program). This line really resonated for me: ‘Facts are locked in time, place, or situation, whereas concepts are transferable’. If it’s facts that we are drilling, then there’s no point. Better to help students understand big ideas and key concepts which are applicable across time, place and situation and can help them construct meaning in different contexts. But mastering skills is another matter. That requires practice, in which case there are times when drill does the trick!

  13. Good post. However I don’t think there is necessarily any need to make a distinction between ‘drill and skill’ and creativity. Being able to successfully utilize skills is a really important part of the creative process, so let’s not feel a need to apologise for the need for rigour within creativity!

  14. Most of my life was as a hs math teacher. I’ve seen the results of an inadequate skill base. Because kids don’t know multiplication facts, so many tasks that should be quick and easy become frustrating and time-consuming. If a kid doesn’t know trig functions, simple jobs turn into hard jobs. There are things to look up, but there are things to know.

    Don’t get caught up in trendy and fun. Some things just aren’t fun, but they are necessary and important. Would you want your doctor to have to consult his PDR for every prescription?

  15. My opposition to drill activities comes form the fact that there’s many better ways to *practice* useful and relevant skills. If you’re working on pronunciation and reading fluency, then have students read whole works, not words in isolation. If it’s arithmetic, then put them in an environment where quick calculation is essential (a simulated stock/cattle exchange with quickly changing prices? a mock supermarket? ).
    As a math teacher, I think about division and long division when this subject comes up. My current stance is that I want kids to develop numeracy, rather than practice the algorithm. As such, I’m always looking for activities that force them to hold lots of numbers in their head and make comparisons and rough calculation, and spend much less time on drilling the procedure.

    My concern about MathBlaster style computer drills is that they further abstract the process, when I want to make it more internal and intuitive.

  16. Excellent article! I believe that there needs to be a balance too. Math skills need repetition and practice to be transferred into the long term memory.
    Automaticy of math facts is required at a very early age (in my district).
    Unfortunately, with all the testing requirements, the regular process of learning isn’ t always feasible, if goals need to be attained at an unreasonable age. Therefore, forcing skill and drill. BALANCE is where you use their knowledge and have them apply/transfer it in creative ways.

  17. I wonder if there is a difference in opinion between primary and secondary teachers. Primary teachers are helping students develop those basic skills that everything else builds on. There does need to be repetition of these skills and before they can be used successfully in a “real world environment” some interaction with them in isolation where they are getting immediate feed back. I think that we often take these basic skills for granted and assume that kids will just catch on. The reason that they are able to catch on and figure out more complex concepts through hands on activities is because they have a basic understanding and quick recall of facts that were memorized. We couldn’t very well expect students who had never heard the alphabet or sounds that phonemes make to just pick up reading one day. It has to be practiced, students have to know that there are 26 letters in our alphabet and that each one represents a sound or sounds and when combined together make up something completely new. I think that we take prior knowledge for granted too often. I will concede that some drill and skill practice is more engaging and valuable to students than others. And again, we do not want school to be drill and skill based, but just recognize that it is part of the learning process. The learning process should not stay here but grow from here. I want my students to explore, discover, and construct knowledge. I want my students to create something new with what they have. But I also recognize that they need some time to sit and practice a skill.

  18. Thomas, wouldn’t that be terrifying, to have professionals who had to consult Google for everything? Can you imagine an EMT on the scene of an accident pulling out his phone to find out how to perform CPR?

  19. I couldn’t have said it better Ed, you hit the nail on the head. We aren’t talking about drilling facts. We are talking about mastering skills to build learning!

  20. Kelly, I agree that there needs to be a foundation of skills established before you can build upon them in creative ways. I would also be interested in the differences of opionions between primary and secondary teachers. I think the question about research and what you see in the classroom is a good one. I think we need to do what we see working for our students since all students and teachers are different.

  21. Well said. If you haven’t checked it out already, Malcolm Gladwell’s book (though I don’t agree with everything he says) Outliers presents a number of case studies showing that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. While this doesn’t mean you have to drill and kill math facts for 10,000 hours, it says a lot about practice.

  22. Kelly–

    I do think our difference is largely related to student age. My mom taught first grade for 30 odd years, and I have the greatest respect for elementary teachers who establish those fundamental abilities.

    I primarily work with middle school students. Those kids are ready to do something engaging and real. Every day we deny them that cements all of their negative impressions of school. I should also mention that I generally mistrust the conventional wisdom, inherited from state curriculum boards and AP tests all the way down. Once we have kids who can read, write a two-clause sentence, and add/subtract/multiple two digit numbers, I’m ready to take them off into the wilds. I honestly believe that almost any skill beyond that can be developed by activities that do *something* as well or better than they can through context-free drill.

  23. As an ESOL teacher, I think drill and skill are especially important for beginners. English language learners need some drill and skill, but it can be fun. That is why I enjoy the web 2.0 tools you post that help students do this in a way that doesn’t feel like drilling. Students are able to see how to drill each other with games or quiz sites that are fun!

  24. I would agree with that Andrew, when the basic skills of learning have been mastered, we can take students to new levels and offer them a variety of learning opportunities.

  25. That is such a great point to make. Kids need the practice that comes from drill and skill, according to Kathy Brabec it takes students 24 times practicing a skill before they become competent in that skill. Thus we can not teach the skill once and move on, the students need a balance of effective instruction and drill.

  26. I think the reason skill and drill has had a bad rap is it is often framed as an either/or issue. I completely agree that this practice is important for students to learn foundational facts such as multiplication tables, orders of operations in math, grammar rules, etc. However, with all learning there has to be a convincing purpose conveyed to the students for it. In the case of games often that purpose can be set aside for the alternative purposes provided by the game design, which may be important for little ones who might not fully grasp the real reasons they need to learn this or that skill or set of facts. So, yes, use skill and drill, but do it in a context that provides students with convincing motivation and reason.

    “It’s not enough to educate us, you have to tell us why you are doing it.” (An Education, 2009)

  27. I have enjoyed reading these comments and this online debate reminds me of what a colleague said in our discussion about laying the right foundation.

    Consider my version of her analogy:

    You wouldn’t throw a child into the pool for the first time on the day of a swim meet you expected them to win. Sure with luck they might doggy paddle through it and finish, but have they really succeeded? Will that child ever be passionate about swimming or ever be motivated to be the winner of a swim meet with that type of introduction? A few might, but the majority would not.

    If you don’t give a reader the skills to decode and the mathematician the foundation for simple facts they will be thrown in the pool without knowing the strokes to success.

  28. I can tell you that students who don’t have things like math facts known automatically face limitations and challenges later on. I’m at a community college.
    I love all the talk about theory and research… but if you’re busy figuring out the boring stuff, you don’t have time to do the higher level thinking that the student next to you is now engaged in. Factoring? You can just forget understanding it… you’re trying to figure out all the possibilities for what multiplies to get 56.
    Yes, I also get students who are rutted in the facts and procedures. YOu can’t *only* teach that.
    Show me the research that “discovery” creates fluency. I’ve seen research that says discovery helps with discovery. IT’s important. However, it’s not the whole picture.

  29. Sue, it just goes to show, everything has to be done in balance and the students have to be taken into consideration. Some students will need more drill and skill practice to get the hang of things. Other students will do just fine with minimum drill/practice.

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