12 Building Blocks to Use Learning Technologies Effectively – Building Block 9: Variable Practice

The world is in the grip of the corona virus. Schools have been closed and people are urged to work from home if possible. Education institutions and organisations alike are trying to figure out how to help their students or workers learn while at home. At this point, they’re forced to redesign their current offerings from face-to-face to digital at a distance. Although there are many pitfalls (redesign from in-person to virtual requires a careful design process), we thought it might be helpful to give some tips & tricks. Wilfred Rubens, a friend / colleague has recently written some useful blogs in Dutch and has kindly agreed to allow us to translate them to English. They’re all based on the book ‘Wijze lessen. Twaalf bouwstenen voor effectieve didactiek’ (‘Lessons for Learning: 12 Building Blocks for Effective Teaching’ which is at this very moment being translated into English), written by Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen, Dominique Sluijsmans, Gino Kamp, Daniel Muijs and Paul A. Kirschner.

wijze lessenIn the book, Surma and his co-authors, discuss how to teach effectively using twelve evidence-informed instruction principles. Wilfred saw an opportunity to elaborate on the building blocks by teasing out the relationship between each building block and learning technologies. He published 12 blogs – one for each building block – in which he explained how learning technologies can be used to facilitate and strengthen the relevant building block (you can find the original blogs here).[1]

This is the ninth one. Stay tuned for more! We (Mirjam and Paul), together with ExCEL’s – the Expertise Centre for Effective Learning (of which Paul A. Kirschner is guest professor) Tim Surma, Kristel Vanhoyweghen (researchers at ExCEL and also authors of the book), and Tine Hoof (also a researcher of ExCEL), we’re working hard to translate the next 9 building blocks, and how learning technology can strengthen them, into English.

Tim Surma and his co-authors write:

During practice, variability is usually key. By alternating between different types of practice and different types of content, learners can learn to use various problem-solving strategies. Variety is the spice of learning!

[Also see Paul and Mirjam’s blog on the same topic].

Sometimes, people confuse this building block with building block 4 (Combining Words and Visuals). They think ‘variety’ refers to various forms of ‘content’ (text, images, audio, video). That’s NOT what variable practice refers to.

According to Surma and co, this building block is about:

  • Alternating similar types of practice
  • Switching between worked examples, partially completed worked (out) examples, complete problems, and goal free assignments.
  • Alternating between various productive practice types
  • Switching between individual work, peer learning in pairs, and collaborating in small groups.

To put it simply, variable practice encourages learners to think harder and because of that, learning more in the long-term.

You need to consider various factors when choosing between and amongst practice types. For example, learners need sufficient prior knowledge to be able to carry out problem solving tasks, but learners with little prior knowledge can best use worked examples.

Thanks to learning technology, instructors/facilitators have access to an even richer toolbox to shape this building block. I [Wilfred Rubens] have previously discussed how to use learning technologies to create worked examples [Building Block 3]. Digital learning environments usually also include multiple functionalities to create a wide variety of practice types. It goes without saying, there are plenty of other learning technologies available to help you design a suite of practice types.

Online you can find various overviews of tools [Note: For this blog, we have only kept the English websites that Wilfred listed]:

I [Wilfred] have also created an overview of 32 types of learning technologies [In Dutch]. When you take a look at the types of practice, you’ll see:

  • Annotating text
  • Completing assignments (individually or in groups)
  • Practising within augmented reality, mixed reality or virtual reality environments
  • Creating assignments within interactive content
  • Creating electronic portfolios
  • Using gamification elements within assignments (e.g., online puzzles)
  • Letting learners develop practice questions and answer those of other learners
  • Creating mindmaps
  • Completing quizzes and tests. Although many question types are variations of multiple-choice questions, you can still try to vary question types as much as possible

Of course, not all practice types are fit for every purpose. You can also use various practice types in virtual instructor-led sessions.