Repetition and Practice Bring Fluency and Understanding

July 15, 2020

Barbara Oakley wrote an interesting article that asserts, “The building blocks of understanding are memorization and repetition.”

I totally agree with her. True knowledge of any subject comes from intimacy with it and that means spending a lot of time with it or “memorization and repetition.” It is hard work.

The problem with focusing relentlessly on understanding is that math and science students can often grasp essentials of an important idea, but this understanding can quickly slip away without consolidation through practice and repetition. Worse, students often believe they understand something when, in fact, they don’t. By championing the importance of understanding, teachers can inadvertently set their students up for failure as those students blunder in illusions of competence. As one (failing) engineering student recently told me: “I just don’t see how I could have done so poorly. I understood it when you taught it in class.” My student may have thought he’d understood it at the time, and perhaps he did, but he’d never practiced using the concept to truly internalize it. He had not developed any kind of procedural fluency or ability to apply what he thought he understood.

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