Low Stakes Quizzing and Retrieval Practice Part 2

In my last post, I outlined an approach to low stakes quizzing, focussing on vocabulary retrieval. Although vocabulary is important, there are a number of other things that I want my students to remember and apply. Like many other schools, we have begun developing knowledge organisers in an attempt to make clear what we believe to be the most important information in a particular unit. These ‘core knowledge’ documents contain crucial plot and character information, themes and facts about the socio-historical context of whatever text we are teaching. We have also begun to develop booklets, essentially home-made text books, so that knowledge is defined down to the word level. While knowledge organisers provide the core, the booklets allow us to define a wider associated domain, all of which is available for teachers to use in retrieval practice. As well as vocabulary, a typical low stakes quiz will ask questions about anything from the booklets. At present, we are approaching this in an ad hoc, spontaneous fashion, although I can see the potential for being more rigorous by aiming for optimum spacing between tests as well as thinking about the relative importance and utility of each concept that is being quizzed, prioritising the essential.

Here is a short sample quiz from a year 7 unit on Shakespearean rhetoric which exemplifies the range of questions that could be asked. Crucially, all the questions are about things that we have taught them from the booklets. (Although I have left them out here, as mentioned in the last post, students may be given clues and the answers may be followed up by further questions that deepen understanding or encourage students to make links):

1) What rhetorical technique involves a series of rhetorical questions? (key term from knowledge organiser)

2) In chronological order, write down the two monarchs who were on the throne during Shakespeare’s lifetime (information from a non-fiction text)

3) Who wrote Telephone Conversation and what country is he from? (question about previous unit)

4) Name two other famous playwrights who were Shakespeare’s contemporaries (information from a non-fiction text)

5) When did Queen Elizabeth ascend to the throne? (information from a non-fiction text)

6) Write a noun beginning with Emp….. that means the ability to understand and share the feelings of others (vocab from a vocab table…see this blog for more information about this resource)

7) Why was it difficult to be a Catholic in Elizabethan England? (information from a non-fiction text)

8) What is a pause in the middle of a line of poetry called? (question about a previous unit)

9) What adjective beginning with profi….. means competent and skilled? (vocab word highlighted in non-fiction text)

10) What was the system of racial segregation in South Africa called? (question from a previous unit)


Again, the purpose of these quizzes is to take advantage of the testing effect in order to promote retention. We don’t mark them or record scores. Quizzes should be cumulative, asking about things from yesterday, last week, last month and previous years.

Whole Class Feedback and Low Stakes Quizzing

Whole Class Feedback is a revelation, saving time for teachers and encouraging a focus on weaknesses, misconception and gaps in student understanding. If you want to know how to approach it, there have been plenty of influential and informative blogs that explain the process in detail: see this (https://readingallthebooks.com/2016/03/19/giving-feedback-the-michaela-way/)  from Jo Facer, one from Daisy Christodolou (https://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com/2017/08/16/feedback-and-english-mocks/) and this from Mrthorntonteach (https://mrthorntonteach.com/2016/04/08/marking-crib-sheet/).

This approach links in perfectly with low stakes quizzing as you can compile a list of errors which can then be added to your recap quiz in order to help student make corrections. If you are worried about the fact that whole class feedback means that some students will be asked to practise or retrieve things that they were previously able to do, therefore wasting their time, the concept of overlearning seems to suggest that extra practice beyond the point of initial mastery aids long term retention. (see this blog for a useful overview of overlearning: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/should-students-be-overlearning/ )

Here are some examples:

1) If a student spells antithetical wrong, include it in the quiz. Ask them to spell it, then write the correct spelling under the visualiser and they can then check and amend if necessary. Ask them to spell the noun and the adverb too!

2) If students have made a poor word choice and failed to use a more precise word, write the weak sentence and ask them to replace the word. Again, this is not vocabulary brainstorming-an activity that flatters yet fails to stretch the word-rich and disadvantages or ignores the word poor; I would ask them to replace the word with one that you have taught them, which is a far more equitable approach:

Weak sentence: Gerald was able to use Eva Smith because she was poor.

TASK: Replace the underlined words with more precise and sophisticated vocabulary.

Possible answer: Gerald was able to exploit Eva Smith because she was destitute.

Like other quiz questions, you can give them clues-the purpose is for them to successfully retrieve the word from memory. If they are successful, the memory’s durability will hopefully have been strengthened.

With this particular activity, you can ask them use write more complex sentences if they are able to:

As a result of her destitution, Gerald was able to exploit Eva and ‘install her’ as his mistress.

Destitute and vulnerable, Eva Smith was easily exploited by Gerald, a man of wealth, power and status who must have seemed like a ‘fairy prince’.

In a future post, I will write about how Whole Class Feedback can further inform the deliberate practice of sentence structures, ensuring that you teach, practice and recap areas of weakness (a precise approach to Assessment for Learning).

In the next post, I will explore how we help students succeed in closed book literature exams by asking them to memorise quotations, as well as looking at other retrieval practice strategies.


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