Low Stakes Quizzing and Retrieval Practice Part 1

When I began teaching, I thought that a starter activity was there to ‘engage’ students in the learning, perhaps by providing some form of irresistible conundrum or puzzle for them to work out or maybe a multi-media, pyrotechnic laser show to wow them into compliance, competency and submission. By creating overblown and incredibly time consuming activities, I thought that my lessons would be memorable, burning themselves into the minds of my awestruck students and ensuring 100% retention. The lesson was everything: I thought of learning in 60 minute episodes. Learning over time, and by implication the notion of long term retention, was not something that I really considered, dazzled as I seemed to be by the allure and promise of engagement, novelty and the hallowed ‘hook’.

Oh how wrong I was! Not only was this desire for novelty and edutainment exhausting, but it implicitly sent the message to my students that my subject needed to be made more interesting, thereby giving them the impression that it was inherently boring in the first place. Worse than this, my focus on super-mega-wow starters categorically failed to help students to remember the information. Like the teacher who wanted students to appreciate, understand and remember the life of a slave through baking biscuits (see this article: https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/summer-2003/ask-cognitive-scientist), I had completely misunderstood how to ensure that students retain information-or more arrogantly, I had assumed that I knew!)

Since emerging from this muddled quagmire, long term retention has become one of my primary aims. Now, I generally start lessons in one of three ways:

1) Whole Class Feedback

2) Deliberate Practice of sentence constructions (some of which are explained here)

3) Low stakes Quizzing and retrieval practice

In this post, I will look at how I approach low stakes quizzing, a technique that has dramatically improved my students’ knowledge and motivation. If you are interested in an overview of retrieval practice, this concept map is really useful: http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/4/1-1.

Before beginning to discuss low stakes quizzing, it is important to recognise that there is one major prerequisite that you need: an explicitly codified curriculum that lists the content down to a fine grain, fact and word level. If you don’t explicitly state what it is you want students to remember, then it is difficult to keep track of what you want to quiz them on. Over the last year or so and like many other schools, we have been developing ‘booklets’ for our students. These are essentially ‘home-made’ textbooks, containing passages or extracts to annotate; worked examples to deconstruct and exemplify quality (a future blog will explore how we are attempting to apply the alternation strategy, worked example and problem completion effects from Cognitive Load Theory); vocabulary tables (explored in this blog post); supporting non-fiction articles and knowledge organisers amongst other things.

Although there seem to be optimum gaps between retrieval in order to maximise retention, depending upon the length of time in between teaching and the test (see this blog for more info: https://mrbenney.wordpress.com/2016/11/03/optimal-time-for-spacing-gaps/), I am currently just quizzing students on a selection of stuff from last lesson, last week, last term and previous years, ensuring that quizzes are cumulative. I can see how, in future, we could begin to use some of the research on optimum spacing in order to improve and hone our quizzing, maximising its efficacy.

This is how I approach the quiz:

I ask questions orally and students write answers in the backs of their books. They know that they are not permitted to shout out or talk, so everyone has an opportunity to retrieve the information from their memories. I have explained why we are doing this, briefly going over some of the science behind it, and that it is not a ‘test’-they cannot fail and I just want them to try their best. I do not take scores or mark the quizzes, the process of retrieval being the purpose, not the recording of data. With weaker classes or information that is trickier to recall, I give clues, perhaps providing the first couple of letters and writing them under the visualiser: What term means the ‘S’ sound: Sib……….(sibilance) I generally ask 15-25 questions. I do not create quiz sheets or resources or anything else that is potentially time-consuming and may only be used once.

How I feedback:

I ask individual students for the answer, sometimes choosing and sometimes accepting someone whose hand is up. When they say the answer, I ask them to explain what the word means, reinforcing the link between definition and meaning. If they can’t, I ask someone else and, if the answer is correct, I ask them to repeat or paraphrase the answer that was given, following No Opt Out from Teach Like A Champion (you can access a pdf explaining this approach here). I then write the correct answer down under the visualiser, asking students to correct their errors or add the answer if they did not know. Then, I ask a series of oral follow up questions and students give spoken responses. The intention is to move beyond mere factual recall to application and generalisation, deepening their understanding of the initial answer. These can be asked to a range of students.  This seems to be the premise behind ‘Elaboration’, an idea explained here: http://www.learningscientists.org/elaboration.

Let me show you some examples with some commentary:

ANSWER: “Sibilance’

Possible oral follow up questions:

a) What is the adjective of sibilance?

As mentioned in this post, drawing attention to and practising different forms of the same word is not only having a noticeable effect on students interest in word formation, but it also encourages them to make generalisations as they attempt to nominalise and make other morphological transformations. If they can use all derivations of a word, they understand it better.

b) Tell me a sibilant phrase

c) What is the effect of the sibilance in ‘the merciless east winds that knives us’

Accurate and effortless application of vocabulary is the ultimate aim. Initially, I want them to successfully use a word in the first context that they encounter it and will ask them to apply it to the current text we are studying; later on, I will ask them to apply it to different texts, attempting to achieve near transfer (an idea discussed in this blog: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/trouble-transfer-can-make-learning-flexible/). It seems that, despite the fact that transfer is difficult to achieve, prompting and asking students to extend practice and application to different situations, units and tasks may go some way towards achieving it.


ANSWER: ‘Juxtaposition’

Possible oral follow up questions:

a) What is the verb?

b) What is the general effect of juxtaposition?

c) How is it different from an oxymoron?

Asking questions about concepts that are minimally different from the original idea allows students to better discriminate between the two. If they understand both the scope and the delineation of a concept, the potential for confusion and ambiguity will hopefully be minimised.

ANSWER: ‘Polysemic’

Possible oral follow up questions:

a) What does the prefix ‘poly’ mean?

Suffixes, prefixes and roots are important: morphology allows students to generalise and adapt.

b) Think of another word that starts with the prefix ‘poly’

c) If ‘poly’ means many, which prefixes can mean ‘one’?

d) Is it the same as ‘ambiguous’?


ANSWER: ‘Venerate’

Possible oral follow up questions:

a) Which word is a synonym of ‘venerate’ (they have been taught revere)

b) What is the noun?

c) Why is Macbeth venerated at the start of the play?

d) Give me a sentence using ‘venerate’

In the next post, I will explore the range of questions that may be asked in quizzes as well as the link between low stakes quizzing and Whole Class Feedback.


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