Earlier this summer I was talking to a seasoned elementary teacher that is a standout educator and asset to the profession. She mentioned that she is transferring to a new school, and she had concerns with their ‘Drill and Kill’ instruction pedagogy. It dawned on me that I had heard that educational expression for over two decades, and I did not understand its pragmatic definition.

What does “Drill and Kill” really mean?

Upon initial consideration, I believe “Drill and Kill” means providing students an exorbitant number of repetitions on a particular skill or task until their intellectual curiosity is ultimately crushed. Of course, that implies a classroom teacher would repetitively force students to complete the same task or skill after they have clearly demonstrated mastery or proficiency. In over two decades, I have never witnessed an elementary teacher or a school principal allowing this pedagogical situation to occur. In fact, I have actually observed the opposite more often – when a teacher does not provide a sufficient number of practice on a particular skill to instill student mastery.

How Many Repetitions are Required for Skill Proficiency or Student Mastery?

First and foremost, repetitive practice is always required to threshold levels for any human endeavor to master a skill regardless of the exercise, activity or task. For example, in an elementary arithmetic skill practice, a viable and general rule to achieve a level of skill proficiency is the following threshold of discrete exposure ranges:

1 to 3 repetitions for students classified as gifted and talented

8 to 18 repetitions for students classified as regular education

For students receiving special education services, the threshold number of repetitions will vary. Hence, an IEP (Individual Education Plan) is developed to address each child’s disability.

As the students are provided these varying skill thresholds, they achieve mastery and ‘own’ the skill – meaning that the discrete practice skill is permanently retained in long-term memory. Of course, the next step in the instructional process is to transfer the discrete skill into an appropriate situation or application. Simple enough!

The only remaining question is the manner in which students are provided the threshold repetitions. In this case, it is strongly recommend educators use a concept called ‘Spaced Repetition’ pedagogy. It is a dynamic process and the teacher can control the number of repetitions for each student that is academically struggling, so all children in the classroom are provided equity in the learning process. I refer the interested educator to the free downloadable white papers and related blogs on The New 3Rs Education Consulting website for more information on spaced repetition system instruction.

So, What Does ‘Drill and Kill’ Actually Imply?

Well, it must mean exactly what was described before. A teacher would continue to give students the same skill practice long after that student has mastered that skill, until the student is frustrated. It further reasons that the expression, “Drill and Kill” must be defined by this classroom practice since if the student is not provided meaningful and sufficient practice, the skill was never mastered by the student. Put simply in our definition of ‘Drill and Kill,’ the student demonstrates mastery, but the teacher continues to require completion of the same skill practice, repeatedly. As I said previously, I have never seen this sadistic practice by any teacher in any school, ever!

Another possible practice issue where the expression ‘Drill and Kill’ may be attempted to be applied is when a student is attempting to learn their four operational math facts. For example, if a student is attempting to master their mixed single digit multiplication facts, and the teacher provides a student a mixed fact sheet of 100 basic multiplication math facts.

However, after 4 or 5 attempts, the student is unable to correctly complete more than 25 or 30 single digit multiplication facts in a standard five (5) minute time period. To continue the practice of providing the same student this 100 individual mixed multiplication math facts each day is absolutely pointless. The mixed multiplication skill is too demanding in its present form for the student. In this case, the mixed multiplication fact task must be broken down in a segmented structure so the student is not overwhelmed by the task. The teacher should provide a simpler learning process so students may master their multiplication facts. A simple and easy means to accomplish this task is for the student to complete a multiplication practice sheet with 100 problems of only 1’s, then 2’s, then 3’s, etc. in the same five (5) minute assessments. After the student is capable of completing the individual multiplication elements from the 1’s to the 10’s, the student is sufficiently prepared to attempt the 100 mixed multiplication sheet of 100 problems in 5 minutes. Finally, if the student struggles on only individual math facts – for example, 7 x 8, 9 x 4, 8 x 9 and 6 x 9, then the teacher may use blank index cards with ONLY those multiplication facts written on 10 to 12 separate index cards. In doing so, the student studies only the facts that they do not readily know. The teacher should provide this level of diagnostic assistance to their young, elementary students.

Finally, maybe ‘Drill and Kill’ means that the teacher failed to breakdown a complicated task to its discrete parts, as described with the multiplication fact example above. In this situation, the student is given a 100 single digit multiplication mixed fact sheet for weeks, weeks and weeks without student progress until the student is thoroughly frustrated. However, this practice is not ‘Drill and Kill,’ either, per se, since the child never mastered the skill in the first place. Actually, this ineffective classroom practice is simply a lack of professional reflection by the teacher with regard to their own pedagogy and student learning.