Beyond ‘Drill and Kill’: How students develop mastery with IXL
Note: This article first appeared on TeachThought on April 27, 2021.
In 1956, a team led by an educational psychologist at the University of Chicago created a framework for categorizing educational goals, called the Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Its premise is that learning objectives are not always equal: memorization of facts may not always be as important as the ability to analyze and evaluate concepts. For example, while a learner may list all 26 letters to demonstrate knowledge of the alphabet, that ability doesn’t show an understanding of the complexities of the English language.
Educators have relied on numerous methods to ensure students thoroughly grasp concepts in math and English language arts beyond merely memorizing answers. Drill and practice—pejoratively known as “Drill and Kill”—is a common learning method that emphasizes repetitiveness as a way to develop mastery of skills over a focus on deep, conceptual fluency. Educators agree that Drill and Practice has an important place in teaching—it can be a good way to measure factual knowledge and build students’ self-confidence. But to ensure students better remember, apply, and analyze concepts, schools must provide multi-layered instruction that helps learners develop deeper understanding.
Pulling from decades of in-depth research, educators and technologists at IXL Learning have pooled knowledge to create more effective ways for students to learn. Teachers throughout the world turn to IXL’s adaptive, mastery-based curriculum to ensure students deeply engage with concepts. Rigorous activities help learners build a strong foundation of knowledge, understand problems in multiple contexts, and prepare students for higher-level thinking. Let’s walk through how IXL accomplishes this.
The “why” behind math
Widely adopted educational standards, such as the Common Core, expect rigorous instruction to comprise three main components—conceptual understanding, procedural ability and fluency, and contextual application.
To build lasting knowledge, students first need to attain conceptual understanding—going beyond simply discerning math facts to understanding why and how math works. IXL skills focused on conceptual understanding illuminate why certain methods work, giving students the ability to apply concepts and explain their reasoning later on. From there, procedural fluency leverages deep conceptual understanding to build facility with facts and procedures, and contextual application encourages students to create strategies for solving complex problems in multiple contexts.
IXL offers a wide range of skills supporting all of these aspects so students progress seamlessly and achieve rigor in math.
To develop conceptual knowledge of topics such as subtraction and fractions, students practice IXL skills involving area models, linked cubes, number lines, ten frames, and many other models. Each question adjusts in difficulty based on the student’s level of understanding, so learners always work on questions perfectly suited for them. Learners also receive immediate feedback when they answer a question incorrectly, ensuring they gain in-depth understanding of foundational pieces of each topic before moving on.
Students need ample opportunity to practice procedural skills to achieve fluency, but if teachers can’t match students to skills that fit their knowledge levels, practice can start to feel a lot like “drill and kill” work. IXL goes beyond rote skill practice by offering built-in differentiation. IXL skills are scaffolded so that students effectively build knowledge from easier to more complex concepts. Questions are adaptive, ensuring that students are always working at the correct difficulty level and on the right concept. And if students need support, IXL offers in-skill recommendations where learners can pause and build up additional foundational knowledge.
Students will tie together all of the strategies they’ve learned while practicing contextual application skills. For example, IXL’s word problems combine multi-step questions with real-world examples. In addition, IXL checkpoint skills help students strategically apply multiple concepts when working through rigorous questions, ultimately preparing them for higher achievement on standardized assessments. If students demonstrate gaps in knowledge, IXL provides learners the exact foundational skills that will close them.
With a strong balance of conceptual, procedural, and application skills, IXL’s comprehensive math curriculum ensures teachers have important resources to help students build a deep understanding of concepts.
Digging into literature
IXL English language arts provides a comprehensive approach to reading, writing, vocabulary, and grammar that gives students unique opportunities to develop their literacy skills. Many skills ask students to go beyond simply reading a text and answering questions about it: learners are guided into a deeper analysis of material to help them gain a richer understanding of the content.
Understanding context with immersive content
Context is critical for comprehension, and IXL skills ensure learners fully grasp an author’s intent. For example, students read fascinating fictional stories about historical figures and events, such as the story about Benjamin Franklin’s match against a chess-playing “robot,” a tale about a young girl in rural Australia attending school by radio, and a passage about a young boy who meets Thurgood Marshall.
This skill involves multi-part questions that allow students to immerse themselves in the texts as they make inferences, use context clues to deduce the meaning of new words, analyze specific authorial choices, and more. After students answer the first question, they see a “Correct answer explanation” that provides more historical context about the story to build knowledge and further spark curiosity.
In addition to providing in-depth reading comprehension, IXL offers targeted reading strategies skills. For example, if learners are having trouble with vocabulary questions, they can practice skills that teach them how to use context to identify the meaning of new words.
IXL’s informational text skills also present passages where students dig into content from different angles and answer multiple questions to show overall understanding. These engaging skills focus on topics such as animals, sports, famous people, and business and technology, where learners use information from the text to draw new conclusions. IXL’s literary and informational text skills are split up into two levels. Students with reading levels that are at the lower end of their grade level work on shorter, simpler questions with image support, while higher-level texts contain longer, more complex questions.
IXL’s approach builds strong, confident learners. In fact, research across more than 58,000 schools in 24 states shows schools using IXL consistently outperformed schools using any other program or method, ranking as much as 17 percentile points higher on state assessments.
No matter what subject you teach or how passionate you are, educating through rote skill practice is no longer sufficient to help learners master content. Learning that is in-depth and deliberate, with engaging skill practice, will guide students toward true concept mastery.
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