Drill and Thrill

Is drill demotivating and demoralising, killing motivation and pupils’ ability to think for themselves?

Far from demotivating, I’ve found carefully designed subejct-specific practice drills to be highly motivating for the pupils in school, as self-reinforcing cycles of drill and success, drill and success create upward spirals of positive momentum and motivation. Drill does not kill motivation; instead, it can thrill kids with their own unprecedented achievement, if we get it right. We are not talking about drilling to an exam specification, nor drilling to the test or exam, nor drilling number of marks per question – not at all. We are instead talking about drilling useful subject facts and knowledge that will stand the test of time for years to come, far beyond exams. Drill does not have to be mindless; indeed, it must not be if it is to succeed.


Why drill?

In practice, what you do matters as much or more than how long you do it for. We have learned insights from Daniel Willingham, Doug Lemov and Anders Ericsson to apply to our curriculum and instruction on practice. There is astounding, independent convergence from several fields of research: from cognitive psychology; from the science of expertise and deliberate practice; and from the empirical, data-driven research into improving teacher practice.

Drill prevents forgetting, boosts automaticity, improves transfer, according to Daniel Willingham in his chapter ‘is drill worth it?’ He collates decades of research in psychology and concludes that drill is ‘one of the most effective ways to overcome the bottleneck of working memory’ and ‘it is virtually impossible to become proficient at any mental task without extended practice.’ Put like this, it is key to learning, and foolhardy to dismiss drill as killing motivation. Drill isn’t dispensable; it is indispensable for learning. The question Willingham asks of us is, ‘what needs to become automatic?’ That is a question for teachers to answer for each subject.

There is a recipe for maximum improvement from practice’, says Anders Ericsson, the world-leading expert on deliberate practice: first, he says, ‘a good teacher’: someone who knows the best order in which to learn things, who understands and can demonstrate [them] … who can provide useful feedback, and who can design practice exercises to overcome particular weaknesses.’ Eriksson’s recipe is focus, feedback, fixes and habits. Close attention to every detail of performance, ‘each one done correctly, time and again, until excellence in detail becomes a firmly ingrained habit.’


One of the books I’ve most often returned to in the last few years in teaching is Doug Lemov’s book, Practice Perfect. “Many educators perceive drilling as pejorative ‘drill and kill’, the enemy of higher order thinking.” Doug argues that we have put the cart before the horse: it is not that drill detracts from higher-order thinking; it is that higher-order thinking depends on drill.


In sport, as Doug points out, drill distinguishes the best from the rest. Doug spoke to a basketball coach with an 81% win rate, the highest rate in history of the sport, winning 10 championships in 12 years. His secret was his drills. “He repeated drills until his players achieved mastery and then automaticity. He designed his drills to intentionally distort the game to emphasise and isolate specific concepts and skills. The culture in which those drills took place was humble, selfless, relentless.”

I also love the story of Barcelona football club, one of the most successful football clubs in Europe over the last decade, winning the Spanish League 8 times in 12 seasons and the Champions League in Europe 4 times in 12, an astounding record. Their secret? Part of their success comes down to drill. As one player puts it: ‘It’s all about rondos. Rondo, rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It’s the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch.’ What are the lessons we can learn for teaching, from drills driving improvement in sport? Doug draws out several lessons for how best to improve practice in his book. Here are six of his rules:


  1. Encode success

Practice makes permanent, not perfect. If pupils are practising but failing, they encode that failure; if they practise succeeding, they encode that success. The success rate of practice should be reliably high.

  1. Practise the 20%

The law of the vital few is a pattern cited by economists that suggests 80% of the results comes from 20% of the most vital few inputs. Which procedural knowledge and habits do pupils most need to automate in your subject? Identify the 20% of things you could practise that have 80% of the impact. Practise them with obsessive attention to detail.

  1. Achieve autopilot: fundamentals are freeing

Stress learning all the way to automaticity so that pupils have processes on autopilot. Automating fundamentals frees the mind for more complex decision-making, problem-solving and critical thinking. Drill the fundamentals to free the mind to be creative when it matters most.

  1. Craft precise drills

Drills strive to maximise the amount of mental energy focused intensively on a discrete concept or process. Challenge yourself to define small, specific processes. Break down complex skills into narrow steps. Craft precise drills for each of them in isolation.

  1. Build everyday routines

Make drills the norm and turn them into routines.

  1. Shorten the feedback loop

Make feedback focused, specific, actionable and acted on instantly.


How we use drill 

Every Department Head can be tasked with deciding the 20% most vital habits for pupils to achieve automaticity on, then to craft precise drills as everyday routines with instant, actionable, acted-on feedback. Specifically, here are just some of ways to use drill in lessons:

  1. Written recaps

At the start of every lesson in every subject, begin with recap questions that all pupils write the answers to. Then give instant feedback on the answers (and spellings) that pupils self-correct and self-improve.

  1. Oral questions

At the end of every lesson in every subject, finish with oral drill questions that pupils answer individually, often being ‘cold-called’ by name to answer, sometimes with hands up for a visual glance at how many think they know the answer. The energy and excitement that these drills have created in lessons is palpable.

  1. Choral response

Throughout lessons, use lots of questions with one-or-two-word answers that all pupils reply to in choral unison: What is the process that plants use to convert sunlight into glucose? “PHOTOSYNTHESIS!” The volume gives an indicator of how well or weakly the class knows the answer!

  1. Quotation drill, annotation extensions

For learning poems, Shakespeare speeches and quotations from novels or plays, use incremental gap-fill exercises that remove more and more words until pupils can write the entire quotation, poem or speech from memory. Watching 100% of pupils scribbling furiously to get on to the annotation extension is a joy to behold.

5. Times Table Rock Stars

Bruno Reddy’s website makes drilling multiplication motivating. Our Year 7 pupils use it every evening. Many love it, especially excited by the chance to compete against other schools online.

6. Reading, Reading, Reading.

Every single lesson. Every single day. It’s one of the 20% tasks with 80% of the impact.

7. Writing, Writing, Writing.

Every single lesson. Every single day. It’s one of the 20% tasks with 80% of the impact.


Drill can thrill. It is up to departments to decide and design the most motivating sequence to pupil mastery, fluency, automaticity and ultimately, subject expertise.






About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Drill and Thrill

  1. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Pragmatic Education

  2. Ed says:

    Hi Joe,

    Your posts contain great ideas. Would it be possible that you provide examples of activities of learning with drill and practice and knowledge organisers? How are they actually used at a planning level?

    Many thanks


  3. Pingback: Blogs that tell you how to teach better – Elephant lessons

  4. Pingback: Module: How to write SLOP

  5. evehedley says:

    Great article!! Drilling is an essential part of MFL methodology and seems to be dying out.
    Drilling is fun, and instills confidence in learners, giving students a sense of success.
    Thank you for writing this article.

  6. Pingback: Treasure Trove #4: Cognitive Science Crash Course | Joe Kirby

Leave a Reply