Effect of Drill Ratios on Recall and On-Task Behavior for Children with Learning and Attention Difficulties

By Burns, Matthew K.; Dean, Vincent J. | Journal of Instructional Psychology, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Effect of Drill Ratios on Recall and On-Task Behavior for Children with Learning and Attention Difficulties


Burns, Matthew K., Dean, Vincent J., Journal of Instructional Psychology


The instructional level, a measure of optimal instructional challenge, addresses the amount of review material interspersed with new. The current study further attempted to identify the instructional level for drill tasks by teaching sight-words to five fourth grade students with reading disabilities and documented attention difficulties. Four different drill ratios. 0% known. 50% known, 83% known, and 90% known, were used with a 1-week retention interval and both recall and on-task behavior being the dependent variables. Results suggested that the 90% known condition led to the highest percentage of on-task behavior and the highest retention, but required much more time to complete. Limitations and implications for future research are included.

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"The most effective device that can be applied to learning is to increase the amount of drill or practice" (p. 289) and efforts to improve academic motivation serve to increase the amount of practice (Symonds & Chase, 1992). Thus, scholars suggested the need for high repetition of new items during initial learning (Daly, Hintze, & Hamler, 2000: Gickling & Thompson, 1985: Tucker, 1989) and Shapiro (1996) recommended that practitioners turn to various drill formats for academic remediation.

Gickling and colleagues (Gickling & Armstrong, 1978; Gickling & Rosenfield, 1995, Thompson, Gickling & Havertape, 1983) demonstrated that students presented with an appropriate level of challenge exhibited higher task completion, task comprehension, and on-task behavior. They labeled this appropriate level of challenge the instructional level, a term first corned by Betts (1946), and theorized that it involved presenting a child with enough review material interspersed with new material to be adequately challenging without being frustrating. Most academic tasks fall into one of two categories, 1) gaining meaning from print (reading), and 2) rehearsing tasks such as mathematics computation, spelling, and sight-word recognition (drill; Gravois & Gickling, 2002). In order for a reading task to be at a child's instructional level, it should include 93% to 97% words that the child can read without effort (Gickling & Thompson, 1985). Drill tasks were theorized to be presented at an instructional level when 70% to 85% of the items have already been learned to the point that they can be recalled without effort (Gickling & Thompson, 1985). Research has consistently supported that providing reading instruction at Gickling's proposed instructional ratio improved reading skills (Burns, 2002; Gickling & Rosenfield, 1995; Shapiro, 1992; Shapiro & Ager, 1992), but the instructional level for drill tasks was not derived from empiricism and data regarding instructional ratios for drill tasks have not been conclusive.

Although research has demonstrated the need to provide instruction that is at each student's instructional level, what that level is for drill tasks has not been conclusively defined. Different ratios of known to unknown items for drill tasks have been suggested including 70% to 85% known and 15% to 30% unknown (Gickling & Thompson, 1985), 10% unknown to 90% known (Tucker, 1989), 30% unknown to 70% known (Coulter & Coulter, 1990), and 50% unknown to 50% known (Neef; Iwata. & Page, 1980). Roberts, Turco, and Shapiro (1991) suggested that the more challenging ratios such as 50% unknown and 40% unknown to 60% known resulted in more unknown sight words being acquired during drill sessions, but the 20% unknown to 80% known level was linked to better retention. Roberts and Shapiro (1996) also found that the 20% unknown to 80% known condition resulted in a higher percentage of material learned, but resulted in less total material learned compared to more challenging ratios. However, research comparing drill tasks containing 90% known, 50% known and 0% known items found that the 90% known condition led to significantly better retention (MacQuarrie, Tucker, Burns, & Hartman, 2002).

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Effect of Drill Ratios on Recall and On-Task Behavior for Children with Learning and Attention Difficulties
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