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Mastering Mathematics with 21st Century Strategies

Retrieval practice, spaced practice, and interleaved practice are not new. Plenty of cognitive scientists and researchers have endorsed them, based on more than 100 years of research. Even so, these beneficial strategies have not been widely implemented in most elementary school classrooms.

Why, then, do we call them 21st Century Strategies? Today, we understand the power of retrieval, spacing, and interleaving. Now is the time to make these strategies work for students. They can be used in classrooms of all types and with learners of all ages: preschoolers as well as middle schoolers, college students, and senior citizens.

What are the strategies?

  • Retrieval practice is revisiting what we’ve learned, allowing time between practice sessions.
  • Spaced practice is studying information in small bits over time. It is the opposite of massed practice, or “cramming.” (At Simple Solutions, we’ve been calling this distributed practice for the past 15 years.)
  • Interleaved practice is alternating among several different types of problems during a single practice session. In math, interleaved practice forces the student to evaluate each problem, and decide how to solve it. See Interleaved Mathematics Practice Giving Students a Chance to Learn What They Need to Know, a beautifully written guide by researchers, Doug Rohrer, PhD, Robert F. Dedrick, PhD and Pooja K. Agarwal, PhD.

Combining the three strategies strengthens memory and increases long-term retention more than any other approach.

Tips for Using the Strategies in Your Classroom

  • Establish a routine and stick to it. This helps students in many ways. It ensures they get the daily practice, the spacing in between, and the immediate feedback they need to be successful. Let students know how and why the strategies work. Use this lesson to do that.
  • Assess often and adjust the practice. Students need different amounts of practice. At first, they may need to practice every day. Once they’ve mastered a skill, they need to practice less often, for example, every other day or every three days. Eventually, they should practice the skill once a week, then twice a month, and so on.
  • Give feedback in a timely manner. Retrieval practice happens during self-testing or quizzing. Students need to know—as soon as possible—whether their answers are correct. They need to correct errors, fill in learning gaps, and shore up weaknesses in their thinking.
  • Make the practice low-stakes. Retrieval practice is practice, not assessment. Provide daily opportunities for self-testing, but make sure students know it’s okay to make mistakes. When errors occur and are corrected, learning happens.
  • Allow (and even encourage) a bit of productive struggle. Remembering what was learned may be hard at first, but doing work yields learning. When students struggle a bit, they are strengthening their memory. The skill or concept will be easier to retrieve the next time they try.
  • Here’s the best tip of all: Sign up to try these strategies for free in your own classroom!

We first discovered the benefits in math class, and since then, we’ve applied the strategies to many other subjects. We call this the Simple Solutions Approach. Simply put, this approach works. Try it for yourself!

Download free sample math sheets for your grade level.

Download free Common Core samples for your grade level.

Create your own customized math practice sheets.


About the author

Nancy Tondy

Nancy is a former elementary teacher and gifted intervention specialist. She joined Simple Solutions in 2005 as co-author of the original English Grammar & Writing Mechanics series, and today, she manages our Writing Team. Outside of work, Nancy enjoys cooking, movies, biking, and travel.

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