Over the past several years, the world’s thought leaders in education have increasingly clamored for more collaborative, constructivist, project-based activities in the classroom, at the expense of rote “drill and practice” exercises.

Schools should focus less on “memorization” and more on “skills”, the theory goes, in order to better prepare students for the 21st-century workplace.

We agree – but with some limitations.

Drill and practice is still useful in education

This virtuous shift toward competency-based learning is arguably one of the most important trends in the advancement of Education this decade. Yet there is a risk of taking it too far.

Repetitive study processes (or otherwise known as "Drill and practice") and knowledge-based assessments can still be very helpful in a lot of cases! The ubiquity of Google and Wikipedia are no substitute for having your own mind full of immediately accessible information.

For example, do we want to produce a generation of physicists who don’t know their basic multiplication tables by heart? Cultured citizens who can’t identify France on a map? Doctors who can’t make a simple diagnosis without consulting WebMD?  Peace Corps volunteers in Peru who can’t conjugate Spanish verbs without consulting an app? The list goes on.

Knowledge is, and will always be, an important objective of the Education process itself, and the best way to fully acquire it is often through good old fashioned repetition.

Indeed, research shows that those students who are able to remember more about a topic are also able to think more critically about it. They're actually better at analysis.

It's just a matter of gracefully integrating drill-based activities into a more holistic learning experience.

Brainscape improves learning via remembering

Over the past several years of building and managing Brainscape, an adaptive flashcard learning platform, we've collected valuable feedback tons of educators—ranging from primary school teachers to college professors—about really works in the classroom. And the role of repetition, especially optimized by the use of flashcards, remains important (for reasons we'll dive into later in this article).

If you want to learn more about really works to help your students retain knowledge, then check out our in-depth guide on optimizing student performance in the classroom.

Constructivism vs. behaviorism

Of course, many progressive educators will argue that real-life simulations, on-the-job training, constructivist activities, and project-based learning are significantly more effective at “teaching” such new concepts than rote memorization and other drill and practice techniques. They are half-right.

The problem is that no single cost-effective constructivist activity will guarantee that you will be exposed to all the concepts you need to know—or that you will fully remember the concepts that you are exposed to. While it may be preferable to first expose students to knowledge in a more constructivist manner, concepts still need to be systematically reviewed in order to be internalized for the long term. This is particularly important in higher education, where the targeted accumulation of knowledge can be critical for success or certification in a particular field.

Brainscape proposes that we shift the debate from whether it is a question of constructivist learning or behaviorist drill & practice, to how we can instead combine the two learning philosophies in the appropriate parts of schooling.

We propose that educators should encourage their students to do any studying or drilling on their own time, using the most personalized study tools possible, in order to leave more physical class time for collaborative, skill-building activities. And by introducing anchoring repetitive learning to classroom topics, you can solve the age-old argument that certain methods like flashcards result in learning out of context.

Fortunately, educators are now better-positioned than ever to “outsource” such personalized repetition outside of the classroom, thanks largely to adaptive web & mobile study technologies like Brainscape. Teachers and students can now easily find, create, and share online study materials that are tied to almost any curriculum on the planet. Students of all ages can benefit from scientifically optimized study algorithms that help them learn more in less time, thereby leaving more class time for those richer activities that schools are best at.

We are now entering the golden age of this Flipped Classroom model. As long as curriculum designers don’t insist that kids waste time memorizing the wrong things (e.g. trivial historical dates, every sub-species of mollusk, excessive numbers of unimportant historical figures, etc.), educators should be able to design lesson plans that appropriately segment the constructivist and behaviorist components of the learning process.

And any little bits of memorization might just end up being good for students’ brains in the first place.