Assessments, particularly large summative assessments, are becoming an increasingly less popular amongst teachers especially since the enforcement of national standardised testing. The idea from the political powers that be is to uniformly assess the learning of all students under their jurisdiction to better appropriate funding and illustrate accountability of schools. The reality for many teachers and students is stress and distraction from the learning process.
But what are teachers to do? We can’t opt out or change the system from within. Is there a way then that we can make the most of assessments?
So what is retrieval practice? Retrieval practice is a learning strategy that revolves around purposefully recalling information to boost learning. This recalling is often manifested in small formative assessments performed frequently.
Recent research on the technique by Mark McDaniel, a psychology professor at Washington University St. Louis, demonstrates that frequent testing can increase memory retention amongst students. At a glance it resembles the old-fashioned pop quiz, the trick however, comes into the pre and post-test activities. These activities are what define the retrieval tests as assessment as learning rather than assessment of learning.
Most teachers try to give feedback within two weeks of an assessment. However, the quicker students receive the feedback, the better. Studies have shown that the further feedback is provided after an examination, the more students feel removed from the person they were when they took the test. This means that students don’t process feedback the way that we’d like them to.
In individual classrooms there are many computer programs/apps that can help speed up the marking and analysis process. My personal favourite is Google Forms that can collect, mark and analyse student responses instantly.
The inclusion of pre and post exam questions (also known as “exam wrappers” by Lovett 2013 Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning) get students thinking about their learning process in a metacognitive way. Personally I’d give these questions out separately before and/or after the exam. Questions include:
- How well do you think you prepared for this test?
- “What will you do differently in preparing for the next test? For example, will you change your study habits or try to sharpen specific skills? Please be specific. Also, what can we do to help?”
- “Based on your responses to the questions above, name at least three things you will do differently in preparing for the next test. BE SPECIFIC.”
Exam wrappers get students thinking about their study methods and learning process. Students are able to learn about how they learn from their exam preparation and can refine their study habits. Learning to learn is an integral part of the high school experience and prepares students to be 21st century learners.
Alright, now I’ve quizzed my students more regularly, am giving feedback promptly and am asking exam wrapper questions to get my students reflecting, what now? The crux of the growth mindset movement is teaching students to develop the ability to learn from their mistakes. To do this we need to talk about mistakes in a constructive way. The easiest way of doing this is to provide students with a deconstruction of the exam, question by question. Students should be able to see what questions they made mistakes in and why.
In this way retrieval practice actively fosters a growth mindset as the stigma is removed from making mistakes and students are empowered to learn from their mistakes. Statistically this reflective item analysis helps students address their mistakes and they are able to improve upon their results before the summative assessment.
So if we test, be sure to make it count. Prepare students with stress free quizzes. Give quick feedback. Reflect upon the process. Debrief about mistakes. And remember it’s just a test.