Patient and Tenacious Teaching

In the race to complete reports that prove the immediate value-added measures of our teaching, we’ve lost sight of one of the most powerful teaching tools we have: patience. Teacher patience is the heart of students’ long-term retention of content and skills. Unless we’re careful, we’ll operate ceaselessly at one speed—impatient—which is death to clear thinking, kryptonite to heroic pedagogy.

Telling students the rote steps to solve an equation is more efficient than letting them experiment with the concepts and helping them generate their own math epiphanies. Showing students what constitutes great art is easier than helping them analyze multiple exemplars and producing their own versions. When time is short and pressure is high, we all succumb to the simplest routes, regardless of merit.

We’re not proud of this, of course, but it’s a reality until we change schooling fundamentals in our country. Until that occurs, let’s find the strength to do the patient thing as much as we can, even in those times it seems difficult. The long-term airport beacon in the distance should be our navigation goal, not the short-term flashlight swinging erratically before us.

Patience to Build Prior Knowledge

Patience in teaching means we dedicate considerable class time to building prior knowledge in students where there is none because we know that nothing is learned well unless it connects to something already in storage. Accepting this precept requires we spend time explaining the political/economic context of great battles and treaties before teaching them. We discuss the purpose and intended audience of a famous writing before reading it. We ask students to analyze successful and unsuccessful media presentations before we teach them how to build a compelling one of their own.

Focusing on prior knowledge with patience also requires us to assess our students’ readiness for new learning, and if some students are missing basic concepts or skills, we take the time to build those basics into the days prior to the new learning.

Before teaching students the first steps of factoring trinomials like –24 – x2 − 8x, we’d want to make sure they had a solid understanding of Greatest Common Factor so they could perceive the need to factor out the −1, turning it into −(24 + x2 + 8x). Before teaching the class how to decipher nomenclature in science or math, we may need to give them some background in Latin and Greek roots and prefixes. This is mindful differentiation, and it takes time and intentionality.

Assessments and Feedback

Teachers and principals who do not understand the interwoven nature of assessment and instruction often perceive pre-assessments and formative assessments with descriptive feedback as taking time away from direct instruction. To go through the pre-assessment process or to delay delivering content so students can take stock of where they are in relationship to learning targets and focus on what they need to do to stay on track seems like it would slow momentum, take too much time from learning.

It’s just the opposite, however. Such assessments and the descriptive feedback that follow actually speed students to their ultimate goal of long-term retention. Instead of retarding forward progress, they enhance it. Removing pre-assessments, formative assessments, and descriptive feedback from the learning journey is one of the surest ways a teacher can deny students their long-term learning.

Quizzing students on content ensures memory recall more than simply reviewing notes does. In their new book, Making It Stick (Harvard University Press, 2014), Peter Brown, Henry Roediger, and Mark McDaniel cite research (p. 20) for an eighth grade class in Illinois in which a science teacher took the time to quiz students and provide meaningful feedback on one portion of the curriculum three times during the semester, but that teacher only reviewed content in another portion of the curriculum during that same time. When tested a month later, student performance on the material that included regular quizzing and the accompanying feedback was much higher than the performance on the material simply revisited.

The authors describe this strategy as “…finding a way to interrupt the process of forgetting…[and] that practicing retrieval makes learning stick far better than re-exposure to the original material does.” They cite a 2010 study that showed, “…students who read a passage of text and then took a test asking them to recall what they had read retained an astonishing 50% more of the information a week later than students who had not been tested.”

Can we honestly claim we’re teaching for long-term retention when we don’t take the time to incorporate frequent quizzing and descriptive feedback? Only if we’re comfortable with indifference and false teaching. It takes real courage to incorporate the assessment-feedback cycle into our lesson plans because it doesn’t immediately portray teachers delivering knowledge to young minds, which is the stereotypical teacher moment: that sage-on-the-stage is still deeply ingrained in our society.

In addition, assessment with feedback may not be easily quantifiable, so we’re not sure if progress is being made, at least in the current week of learning, and there is overwhelming pressure to provide clear metrics of teacher impact on student learning. Yes, there is a certain amount of trust that these processes will bear fruit, and first-timers are wary. Assessment/Feedback veterans, however, delight in students’ improved achievement and colleagues’ discovery of powerful teaching tools. Really, it makes that big a difference.

Patience to Provide Effective Practice

For years, David Sousa, Eric Jensen, Robin Fogarty, and many others have emphasized the importance of spacing out practice: We provide several practice experiences initially, followed by more, but each one a little farther apart from the current one, over a period of days, weeks, and months. It’s hard to dedicate one’s instructional sequence to such timely re-visiting, however, while listening to the scope and sequence drum corps pounding an urgent cadence to the fast-approaching state or provincial exam.

Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel update the research on pacing out practice, adding two more elements of practice that must be included: interleaving and variationInterleaving practice refers to learning in which students get an initial understanding and begin to work with an idea then are moved quickly on to another task or subject without fully automating the first one. There can be several of these moves, each experience teaching something else in the same discipline, before returning to the original content or skill.

It turns out that mixing things up like this and focusing on flexible applications of ideas—not amassed practice of each skill before moving to the next one—will seem harder to students, but it creates significantly better long-term retention of what’s being taught. Tougher learning requires more of the student, and as a result, it creates better learning.

The authors’ research demonstrates that when students in multiple disciplines experienced interleaving practice, they remembered content and skills dramatically longer and to a greater degree. If our goal is truly to increase what students carry forward, not what we presented and students echoed on our unit tests, then we can’t afford to dismiss this element.

Further, just repeating content over and over, as one might do by reading and re-reading lecture notes, actually can hurt learning. Over familiarity, say the authors, creates a false sense of mastery. Not having to struggle a bit to make connections, find supports, and organize information with each interaction does not solidify long-term memory.

This can be a problem when it comes to taking lecture notes with a laptop or tablet. In his May 1, 2014 The Atlantic post, “To Remember a Lecture Better, Take Notes by Hand,” Robinson Meyer cites new research that confirms what many of us suspected: When typing notes on a laptop or tablet while listening to a lecture, we tend to merely transcribe what we hear as fast as we can. Since we type fairly fast, we don’t need to think deeply about what we’re writing at the moment; we just need to get the information down verbatim, which requires no personal engagement with content.

When doing long-hand note-taking, however, we have to think about what we’re doing: what to write, how to arrange it, where it fits, and how it’s different. We don’t have time to write everything verbatim. It turns out that this engagement with the content during the lecture led to much higher scores on tests of the lecture material weeks later. Not only did the initial engagement with long-hand note-taking assist listeners in long-term retention, their notes were far more effective for use during their test preparations.

Practice must also vary and increase complexity. Students need to encounter novelty and curveball applications in practice, not just on the summative test. In art they can explain the same concept from different perspectives and in music they can re-write the passages for different audiences and play the same piece of music under different arrangements.

We can ask them to carve the same sculpture using different tools and we can ask them to prove the curvature of the Earth using only tools found in the 1600s or earlier. They can create clarifying metaphors for abstract ideas and determine whether the Treaty of Versailles would need to be modified if written today. Simply practicing the same way over and over doesn’t cut it, but practice that emphasizes intellectual agility does.

Further Patience

What else leads to long-term retention of curriculum but takes patience to incorporate in our instruction?

  • Putting previous curriculum on subsequent tests, and if students don’t do well on those later tests, re-teaching and re-assessing them until they re-acquire greater proficiency.
  • Teaching students to get adequate sleep at night and exercise during the day, and if homework and projects prevent these from happening, changing the tasks so that students can sleep and exercise.
  • Asking students to write responses, putting the writing to one side for a few days,
  • Requiring students to analyze their performances on major assessments and write letters to you pointing out where they did well, what they need additional assistance with, and what four steps they can take to learn that material better.
  • Asking students not just to learn models in science, math, writing, and technology but to also learn when not to use them or use only hybrids of them.
  • Increasing our wait time after posing a question to the class and before calling on a student to answer and allowing wait time for a student to provide a thoughtful response once called upon to do so.
  • Taking the time to debrief with students after major moments of learning: What helped? What was a hindrance? How did we solve our problem? What did you learn about yourself? How would you do this differently next time? How does this fit with what we already know? What are the next steps?

It’s easy to brush these highly effective, but patience-testing practices to one side, claiming there is no time to offer them. Yet when we look back at our own education, we find mentors who somehow found a way to be patient with us, even when every indicator told them to move on to the next thing or give up.

Perspective and patience, not just content, are what adults bring to the learning equation. Hopefully we have the fortitude of our mentors as we extend the same tenacity and hope to our students.

Effective teaching and learning take time and robust expertise. The sooner we and those mandating policy upon us recognize these non-negotiable elements, the better we can serve our mission.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His latest book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2014.