Low Stakes Quizzing and Retrieval Practice Part 3

In my last post, I gave an overview of retrieval practice and how it can be informed by whole class feedback. In this post, I will go over some different retrieval strategies, including how to approach quotation memorisation.

I began my teaching career as an EFL teacher, teaching English abroad. On my CELTA course, the entry level training qualification to teach English as a Second Language, we were taught to plan lessons that followed a PPP model (Presentation, Practice, Production), a framework that matches most people’s understanding of a deliberate practice approach to instruction. With regards to the practice element, student would be asked to complete controlled practice (essentially limited and restricted practice activities) before attempting freer practice. This is nothing revolutionary and is the same as ‘I do, we do, you do’, or any other approaches to the gradual fading of support and scaffolding when teaching. With regards to retrieval practice, it is useful to think in similar terms: I want students to experience quick, initial success with restricted and decontextualised recall, aiming for the ability to use the item in gradually freer and wider contexts. As Daniel Willingham points out, ‘Inflexible knowledge seems to be the unavoidable foundation of expertise’ (See this AFT article on Inflexible knowledge from Winter 2002).

I teach some of Engelmann’s Direct Instruction programmes and one of the key maxims behind DI schemes of work, an approach called ‘The Strand Curriculum’, is that concepts are taught to and used by students across a number of lessons and weeks, the intention being not just retention but also fluency and mastery of the material. A gradual progression from restrictive, closed practice activities-things like closed recap questions at the start of a lesson-to wider and application based practice is also something that is common across DI programmes that I have encountered, one of the aims being to slowly and methodically convert ‘inflexible’ into more ‘flexible’ knowledge.

Here is an example of a possible journey of a test item-in this case a new vocabulary term-from narrow to wider tasks and moving from massed to spaced practice:

1) The vocabulary word is initially encountered in a vocabulary table (see this post for more information). The teacher may have asked students questions about it, annotated it with further information and provided examples and non-examples to help define it.

2) Student then use the word when annotating an extract

3) They then see the word used in a wider context, perhaps within a model paragraph that they deconstruct and annotate.

4) They are then asked to use the word in a paragraph of their own.

4) Next lesson: The word is included in a low stakes quiz. The teacher probably gives the first few letters to jog their memories. It will probably be included in the next two or three lessons’ quizzes too, each time with less clues and ending up with no clues.

5) A few lessons later: Students are asked to complete a because, but, so task, as explained in this blog

6) Later still, a student could be asked to complete mini pieces of analytical writing where they use and apply the word in a freer context, perhaps combining the word with other items like quotations, contextual knowledge, analytical approaches, specific sentence structures and plot information.


Jekyll and Hyde: How is Hyde Presented? Include:

  • atavistic
  • CONTEXT: Victorian fears about science the enlightenment
  • volatile
  • QUOTATION: ‘snarled aloud into a savage laugh’
  • callous
  • semi-colon sentence
  • ANALYTICAL SKILL: 3 part explanation


Macbeth: How is Duncan presented? Include:

  • Meek
  • Benevolent
  • oblivious
  • CONTEXT: Flattering King James, validating Divine Right of Kings/Great Chain of Being
  • QUOTATION: ‘there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face’
  • appositive sentence (see here for an overview of teaching appositives)


Depending on the ability of the class and whether you think they have the relevant concepts stored in long term memory, you could either ask them to make a list of relevant points in response to the question before giving them things to include (retrieval practice) or you could explicitly tell them what to include.

The key premise here is the idea that concepts should be recycled across lessons and units, creating distributed practice activities that will help aid retention.

Memorising Quotations

Although I initially baulked at the idea of a closed book exam, I am now a convert to the idea that students should memorise quotations. Not only does it provide them with a solid knowledge base of a text, allowing them to anchor their thoughts when writing and providing sticking points for other concepts to attach themselves to, it also gives them confidence, something that is particularly evident with the weakest students. It also means that as teachers, we now need to know our texts that much better and, as a result of the last two years’ worth of closed book examinations, I know the texts that I teach far more comprehensively than I ever have before.

Here are some of the things that we did to address this new requirement:

1) Make lists of quotations, choosing lines that fit key characters and themes

This was a painstaking yet crucial first step, forcing us to think about the most salient and relevant parts of a text when seen through the lens of GCSE and A Level (we deliberately included some quotations that deal with themes and ideas that would push students beyond the requirements of KS4). The great works of literature are considered great for a reason and attempting to choose, prioritise and reduce them to a condensed list is always going to be difficult. Despite this difficulty, it needed doing: without a codified body of knowledge, retrieval practice and teaching for retention is all but impossible. For Macbeth, we listed quotations by scene, the intention being to aid understanding of the narrative arc and plotline by following it chronologically. For Jekyll and Hyde, we grouped them by character and theme. For Inspector Calls (arguably the most important one for students to learn parts of due to the lack of extract on the paper), we made 4 sets with no overarching organisational approach. The jury is still out in terms of which approach is best!

3) Upload them all in sets onto Quizlet

If you haven’t had a look at Quizlet, it is a free computer based memorisation programme. Some of our student use it regularly, finding it less tedious and more effective (it knows which items you perform badly on and prioritises retrieving those) than using traditional paper based self-quizzing.

2) We ask students to memorise them for homework

We explicitly taught and demonstrated how to approach self-quizzing so that students were able to take advantage of retrieval practice, taking care to explain that spreading their study over the week is a better and far less laborious approach than cramming the night before the test. Quotation learning homework is typically ‘lagged’ (the idea that students are studying one text in class, but learning quotations from a previous unit in order to better distribute practice). During the week that they are completing homework, I will include questions about their quotations in recap quizzes, again helping them understand whether they are on track and know the quotations (laser precise AfL!) as well as sometimes (particularly with weaker classes) giving them practice tests. We set the bar high, typically allowing students to fail two quotations out of the ten or so that they have to memorise. I explain that the pass mark is challenging because, if students use the strategies that we give to them and plan their sessions across the week, memorisation is achievable by almost everybody. This does not mean that all students are doing their homework-if only!

3) We test them

Initial tests are gap-fill, blocking out important words and usually providing the first letter to jog their memories.

4) We keep testing them, distributing practice across the unit, year or course.

As I mentioned earlier, the idea is to gradually move from restricted practice (gap fill test) to freer application, culminating in an essay response that uses the quotations. Here are some possible retrieval approaches and I have attempted to order them using this principle:

a) Start a lesson with a gap fill of the quotations

You could then annotate and then write using annotations (these could be teacher-led annotations or retrieval practice)

b) Write one quotation or gap fill on the board, then ask students to write for 5/10 mins about it

You could include explicit success criteria like mentioned in this post, setting high expectations as well as allowing you to give precise feedback

c) Start a lesson asking them to write down 3/5/7 quotes on a particular character/theme/idea

The idea here is to encourage students to make connections and deepen their knowledge of the items. You could provide the first few words for weaker students; again, this could be the beginning of a writing activity.

d) Model the planning of the essay response (paragraph titles) and then ask kids to match quotes to specific paragraphs

By providing them with an essay structure, we give them a framework to attach their quotations to, demonstrating how they fit into a freer more complex practice task.

e) Write essay question on the board and then ask kids to list quotes that are applicable:

You could make kids explicitly aware of parallel, equivalent questions that essentially ask the same thing:

E.G. Explore the idea of deception in Macbeth/Explore the theme of equivocation/Explore the theme of appearances vs reality (all essentially the same question!!!!)

E.G. Explore the theme of responsibility/How does An Inspector Calls comment on society?/ Explore the notion of community/ Explore the theme of inequality (all essentially the same question!!!)

This process of grouping problems according to their deep structure will hopefully help students deal with a range of potential exam questions, prompting them to apply the correct problem solving strategy. Experts intuitively see the deep structure of a problem, a skill that novice learner (our students) find difficult. Students can often get thrown by novel wording in a GCSE question and fail to realise that it is asking them about something that they know: making these links and drawing attention to the deep structure may help them to see past the surface structure (the wording of the question). If you want to find out more about the distinction between the surface structure and deep structure of problems, this AFT article is a fantastic introduction.

Next post: Insights from Direct Instruction: How can Engelmann’s theory and approach help with everyday teaching?


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