Independent practice occurs when the teacher has demonstrated a task or process and then gives students the opportunity to practice on their own.
In the stage of independent practice, the teacher can monitor student progress and may offer some suggestions and guidance as the student attempts to replicate the modeled behavior or task.
Although the teacher might want to offer a lot of guidance, it is also important for students to learn how to monitor and adjust their own actions and self-correct.
Independent practice is an integral part of many lesson plans, especially those that involve skills-based learning outcomes. In those cases, the only way to master a skill is through repetition.
Approaches to Independent Practice
Independent practice has been widely used in teacher-centered approaches to instruction. In this model, the teacher first provides direct instruction, followed by independent practice (in the form of rote repetition) by the students.
While a teacher-centered model has its downsides (such as lack of differentiation for individual student needs), variations that integrate strong teacher support and a transition to student-centered active learning continue to embrace independent practice.
For example, the guided practice, I Do We Do You Do, modelled instruction, and flipped learning all conclude with independent practice:
- Modelled Instruction: In this model, the teacher starts with a teacher-centered approach. It involves the teacher demonstrating how to do the task. Following modelling, the students are encouraged to copy the teacher’s model.
- Guided Practice: The teacher uses scaffolding to walk students through the learning task. The teacher is a guide, giving support until the student can engage in independent practice without teacher assistance.
- I Do We Do You Do: Building on the previous two approaches, this method is a three step model. First, the teacher demonstrates the task. Second, the class attempt the task as a group. Third, individual students do the task independently.
- Flipped Instruction: Students learn the content at home by reading and watching videos. In class, students engage in independent practice and the teacher gives personalized help to students who need it. Here, we have ‘flipped’ the location where instruction takes place and the location where homework (i.e. the independent practice) takes place.
- Capstone Projects: A capstone project is a self-guided task that students engage in at the end of their university degree. Often, it involves independently coming up with a research topic, methodology, study, and findings.
Ideally, independent practice only occurs once a student is capable of trying the task on their own without guidance. For this, we can employ the Zone of Proximal Development framework from Lev Vygotsky. In this framework, scaffolding (teacher guidance) is required until the student is capable to do the task themselves.
After scaffolding, students may be able to practice on their own until they achieve mastery. In other words, independent practice helps students move across the threshold from the ZPD zone to the ‘easy’ zone:
Independent Practice Examples
- Sam can’t keep up in his advanced calculus class like his peers. So, he goes home and watches Khan Academy on slow motion (and repeatedly) until he finally understands, then practices with worksheets until he’s mastered it.
- Mr. Johnson shows his students how to use a Venn Diagram using two animals as an example. He then lets his students try using their own worksheets.
- Natalie is trying to repeat the sequence of keystrokes her piano teacher has demonstrated so many times, but she just can’t get them right yet. Her teach may need to provide more intervention and scaffolding.
- Mrs. Ellen has demonstrated how to solve a math equation and now lets her students practice at their desks. While they’re practicing independently, she walks around and provides tailored support where needed.
- Jonatan is learning English. He thinks he’s got decent conversational skills so he goes out to the local English-language book fair and tried to engage in conversations in English with the native English speakers at each booth.
- Juson watched carefully as his coding instructor demonstrated how to fix a computer issue, but when he attempts the steps at his computer station, it never seems to work.
- Michael is struggling to improve his batting average so he goes to the local automated batting cages and practices hitting 500 balls a day, focusing on his hand-eye coordination.
- Kumar’s yoga trainer showed him how to do the Cow Face Pose, but when he practiced at home, he can’t get his hands to touch. To improve, he tries new stretches daily before doing the Cow Face Pose.
- Javi can make the paper airplane in class when his teacher helps, but he always forgets at least one step when he tries on his own. He’s not quite at the level for independent practice yet.
- Janelle’s coach showed the team the secret to doing a layup with your non-dominant hand. She practiced a lot over the weekend and was eventually able to master the move fairly well. She impressed her teammates at the next training session.
- Students in Dr. Henson’s statistics course always complain that he goes through the steps in SPSS too quickly. When they practice over the weekend, it’s very frustrating, because they haven’t had enough scaffolding.
- Minato remembers how his Home Economics teacher made lasagna, but the version he prepared over the weekend was not nearly as delicious as his teacher’s.
- Maria loves her architecture class. She has the same software at home that her instructor uses, so she gets lot of practice.
- Hannah has an upcoming exam at university so she spends 1.5 hours per day at the library doing exams from previous years.
- Amandeep has an upcoming presentation that will be in front of 200 people. To prepare, she stands in front of the mirror and makes sure she looks up, projects her voice, and recites the presentation with confidence.
- Students learning to write letters are given handwriting worksheets to trace for homework each afternoon.
- Sarah is trying to learn how to do the splits but she’s not quite there yet. She realizes that 1 hour per week at her dance classes aren’t enough, so she practices for 10 minutes each afternoon.
Strengths of Independent Practice
1. Strengthens Skills
One of the main benefits of independent practice is that students will be able to strengthen their skills.
Because repetition is so important when mastering certain skills-based tasks, independent practice allows students the opportunity to get in the necessary practice.
Mistakes will be made of course, but older students will be able to catch those errors, recall the instructor’s demo, and try again.
Performing independent practice at home is often necessary because there is only so much time available during class.
For older students with experience, independent practice allows for self-correction. However, for younger students, this ability may not be so well-developed.
Therefore, allowing younger students an opportunity to work independently, without the teacher watching over their shoulder, helps them build a very valuable skill; the ability to catch their own mistakes and then self-correct.
3. Builds Autonomy
Particularly for younger students, independent practice helps build a sense of autonomy.
Although a lot of younger students want to be independent and make their own decisions, when it comes to learning tasks, many become too dependent on their teacher.
In class, the teacher is always there; willing and able to provide guidance and assistance almost immediately. This is not always in the best interest of the student.
Younger students have to learn to be independent, and independent practice helps them develop this attribute over time.
4. Builds Self-Efficacy
When students are faced with performing a challenging task, many can feel overwhelmed and anxious.
They may feel that they just can’t do it, or at least cannot do it well enough.
However, one of the greatest results of independent practice is that students that once feared failure, eventually succeed. This boosts confidence and pride, and ultimately helps students develop a sense of self-efficacy.
5. Assessment of Individual Progress
After a teacher has demonstrated the necessary steps to perform a certain task, they will allot some time for independent practice.
This gives the students an opportunity to give-it-a-go by themselves and see what happens.
This will also give the teacher an opportunity to conduct an informal assessment. By walking around the classroom and observing each student’s efforts, the teacher can gain a firm grasp of each student’s skill level.
Now they know who needs additional instruction and who is ready to move forward to the next step.
6. Computer-Assisted Independent Practice
The increasing availability and sophistication of computer software has opened new opportunities for independent practice.
For example, software can monitor the user’s reading progress and adjust the level of difficulty of the learning tasks accordingly (Mostow, 2013).
In a sense, the computer serves as a kind of tutor. The student is engaged in independent practice, but at the same time receiving some assistance.
This software may be particularly beneficial for children with learning disabilities (Flower, 2014) or children who struggle to focus but can benefit from gamified computer learning.
Independent Practice Weaknesses
1. Level of Task Difficulty
One of the biggest hurdles with independent practice is adjusting the level of task difficulty.
The teacher needs to choose a level that is not too challenging, or too easy. There will be students that already possess advanced skills, so a task that is too simple will make them feel bored.
On the other hand, a certain percentage of the class may have very little experience with the task. Therefore, the teacher will need to find a level of difficulty that builds the confidence of these students early on. More challenging components can be attempted later.
Striking a balance will always be a challenge for teachers, especially in larger classes with a wider range of student abilities.
2. Student Frustration
When a student attempts to perform a task but fails, it can be very frustrating.
Many students, particularly younger ones, have not yet learned how to deal with failure. For these youngsters, they might just quit. They will immediately conclude that they just can’t do it.
They don’t yet have enough life experience to build self-efficacy. Nearly everything they encounter in life is novel, and this can be a bit frightening for students that are timid or lack confidence.
So, in this sense, independent practice runs the risk of doing more harm than good.
3. Faulty Learning
Sometimes independent practice takes place in the safety of a classroom, and sometimes it doesn’t.
If students engage the learning task independently at home, they may develop faulty habits.
Since the teacher is not available to correct mistakes, students might think they are performing the task correctly, only to discover later that they are not.
When students return to the classroom to demonstrate their skills, they may feel embarrassed that they have been practicing the wrong way. They may feel that they have wasted time practicing the wrong way, and, some parents may agree.
|Strengthens Skills: Repetition through independent practice allows for necessary practice to strengthen skills||Level of Task Difficulty: Striking a balance between task difficulty that is not too challenging or too easy is a challenge, especially in larger classes with a wider range of student abilities|
|Self-Correction: Older students can self-correct, and younger students can develop this valuable skill through independent practice||Student Frustration: Failure can be frustrating, especially for younger students who have not yet learned how to deal with failure and develop self-efficacy|
|Builds Autonomy: Independent practice helps younger students develop a sense of autonomy||Faulty Learning: Independent practice outside of the classroom may lead to the development of faulty habits without teacher correction|
|Builds Self-Efficacy: Independent practice helps students boost confidence and pride, ultimately developing a sense of self-efficacy|
|Assessment of Individual Progress: Independent practice provides teachers with an opportunity to informally assess individual progress|
|Computer Assisted Independent Practice: Computer software can assist with independent practice and be particularly beneficial for students with learning disabilities.|
Independent practice is a valuable step in many lesson plans. Giving students an opportunity to practice a skill independently has numerous benefits.
Many skills taught in class require repetition to master, this includes learning how to solve algebraic equations, writing the alphabet, or mastering the dance moves of a complicated routine.
It helps students strengthen their abilities, helps them develop confidence and a sense of self-efficacy, and it can give the teacher an opportunity to conduct informal assessment.
At the same time, younger students that lack life experience and confidence may find independent practice too frustrating. This can damage their self-esteem and lower motivation.
de Barros, A., Ganimian, A. J., & Venkatachalam, A. (2022). Which students benefit from independent practice? Experimental evidence from a math software in private schools in India. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 15(2), 279-301. https://dpi.org/10.1080/19345747.2021.2005203
Flower, A. (2014). The effect of iPad use during independent practice for students with challenging behavior. Journal of Behavioral Education, 23, 435–448. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10864-014-9206-8
Mostow, J., Nelson-Taylor, J., & Beck, J. E. (2013). Computer-guided oral reading versus independent practice: Comparison of sustained silent reading to an automated reading tutor that listens. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 49(2), 249–276. https://doi.org/10.2190/EC.49.2.g
Prichard, S. (2021). The impact of music practice instruction on middle school band students’ independent practice behaviors. Journal of Research in Music Education, 68(4), 419–435. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022429420947132
Straumberger, W. (2018). Using self-assessment for individual practice in math classes. In: Thompson, D., Burton, M., Cusi, A., Wright, D. (Eds.). Classroom Assessment in Mathematics. ICME-13 Monographs. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-73748-5_4