“Practice Perfection”: It’s Not Just for Gymnasts

In case you are not focused on the world of college gymnastics, the University of Oklahoma’s men’s and women’s teams are second to none. I am not exaggerating: You can see the 2019 NCAA men’s rankings here and the women’s rankings here. We really are #1. Hey, it ain’t bragging if it’s true.

This isn’t a sports blog though; it’s a blog about teaching nonmajors biology. Where’s the connection? Well, I’ll get to that. But first, some back story.

Four of OU’s gymnasts recently spoke at an OU Honors College Q&A session for students. Among the questions was, “How do you do it?”  That is, when competing in a meet, how do these athletes put aside the distractions and the pressure, focus inward, and put together a perfect routine? The answer was shockingly simple: “We practice perfection.” That is, they do the routine so many times that they can execute it flawlessly during practice. Then, they said, the competition is easy. All they need to do is complete the same routine in the meet that they have done over and over in practice.

Four gymnasts

These four OU gymnasts talked about “practicing perfection” at a recent OU Honors College event. [Photo courtesy of Lisa J. Tucker]

The connection to teaching biology is that simple piece of advice: practice perfection. If students studied course material until they knew it perfectly, every time, then tests would be easy. (Teachers aren’t exempt, of course. If we practiced our presentations until we could do them flawlessly, our classes would probably go more smoothly too! But let’s focus on our students.)

How many of your students hold themselves to the “practice perfection” standard? Some do, but many don’t. Instead, many students study just enough to get the gist of the material, then simply hope the exam is easy. If that hope is dashed, it’s easy to blame the teacher for writing “tricky questions” or to blame an innate flaw, like “I’m terrible at science” or “I have really bad test anxiety.” Can you imagine an elite athlete using that strategy? The athlete would practice enough to gain a passing familiarity with the routine, perform during the competition, and blame the judge (or an inability to compete) if the score is low. Such a gymnast wouldn’t last very long.

So, how can teachers help our students to see the value in practicing perfection? If a student professes to be “terrible at science,” we can help by encouraging a growth mindset. If the student has test anxiety, point out resources that can help — and if you click on the link to those resources, notice how many of them connect good study skills (i.e., practice) with confidence, relaxation, and the ability to perform well on tests. If the student grumbles about tricky questions, ask for specific examples, then have an open mind. Your questions really might be ambiguous or unfair. But if a supposedly tricky question is actually difficult but fair, turn the problem back on the student: “Where can you find the material needed to answer that question, and how might you study next time to be able to answer a question like that?”

One additional concrete step we can take is to give students plenty of help finding ways to practice. Give them old exams and answer keys — not all of them, but a couple. Show them how to use the end-of-section and end-of-chapter questions published in textbooks. (If you want to see the practice materials that I provide for my own students, head for my teaching website.) Use class time and office hours to reinforce concept mapping and other skills that help students get away from rote memorization and work toward a deeper understanding of the material.  Let’s do what we can to help our students do what the gymnasts do: practice perfection.

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