Just one book: assessment

In my last post, I outlined what I believed to be the foundational concepts that must underpin a school’s curriculum, using E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy as the one text I felt most clearly displayed what a great curriculum should be. Of course, it is almost impossible to create a curriculum without simultaneously thinking about assessment: it is all very well to teach students great stuff, but if they immediately forget it all, or show you that they’ve understood none of it by the end of your teaching, you might as well have taught marbles.

make it stick

The one book that has truly changed my view on assessment is Make it Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel. Prior to reading this book, I too believed in the value of re-reading, highlighting, and testing students’ knowledge and understanding using extended essay after extended essay, running the risk of breaking my own will to carry on teaching due to having to endlessly plough through immense paragraphs riddled with small misconceptions and tiny errors, all of which I would painstakingly correct, before trying to rationalise each error into a single “target for improvement.” Then, weeks, months, years after I’d taught students, what did they recall of what I had taught? Too, too little.

I want to make a clear distinction between feedback and assessment. I define feedback as qualitative commentary, and assessment as quantifiable, measurable snapshots showing a teacher what their students have and have not understood. Both have their place, but my feeling is we have over-emphasised the former to the detriment of both student learning and teacher well-being.

The key messages from Make it Stick seem to me to be:

  • “Learning is deeper and more durable when it’s effortful.”
  • “We are poor judges of when we are learning well and when we’re not.”
  • Retrieval practice – recalling facts or concepts or events from memory – is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading.”

The authors note that: “One of the best habits a learner can instill in herself is regular self-quizzing to recalibrate her understanding of what she does and does not know.” Joe Kirby has brilliantly explained how this might work in practice over the long term for individual students here. In lessons, I would suggest, we need to not only assess what students have retained in order to know what to teach them, but also to model what this kind of self-quizzing looks like and enable them to practise prior to doing it alone.

And when should this quizzing occur? There frankly does not seem to be a bad time to quiz, according to this book. Students do better in the long-term if they have pre-quizzes (even if they get everything wrong, as “unsuccessful attempts to solve a problem encourage deep processing of the answer when it is later supplied, creating a fertile ground for its encoding”), immediate quizzes (“in 2010 the New York Times reported on a scientific study that showed that students who read a passage of text and then took a test asking them to recall what they had read retained an astonishing 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who had not been tested”) and quizzes after partial forgetting has occurred.

The latter is of particular importance: “When retrieval practice is spaced, allowing some forgetting to occur between tests, it leads to stronger long-term retention than when it is massed.” The most helpful quizzing, they suggest, takes place long enough after learning that the quiz isn’t “mindless repetition” but not so long that “retrieval essentially involves relearning the material”.

“Quiz” does not necessarily mean multiple choice, or even teacher-directed. Brown et al give examples such as students simply writing down ten facts they didn’t know before reading a passage. Another user-friendly option is a “free recall” homework where students: “spend ten minutes at the end of each day sitting with a blank piece of paper on which to write everything they can remember from class”. This enables students to know what they have not yet learned, and so pinpoint their future revision of key facts and ideas. Even cloze exercises can be of benefit, as “the act of filling in a missing word in a text results in better learning and memory of the text.”

In practice, quizzing works best when it is:

1. Purposeful

Students understand why quizzing is beneficial – they buy into the idea of frequent quizzes when they understand the benefits it will have for their long term retention of key ideas.

2. Targeted

Quiz questions are thoughtful and targeted to the specific ideas students need to know, isolating individual facts or key pieces of information.

3. Instantly Corrected

Wrong answers are corrected immediately to ensure students do not leave your lesson carrying misconceptions.

4. Low-Stakes

The stakes are low – there is no need for any of this to stress students out. This, along with emphasising the learning benefits also tends to preclude cheating.

Taking the advice of Make it Stick, schools would do well to build frequent, low-stakes quizzes into their day-to-day teaching. High-stakes, long-answer assessments should be less frequent, partly because the feedback teachers can give on these will not be as accurate, as students will be displaying a much larger breadth of skills and knowledge. Short, frequent quizzes allow teachers to break learning down into its core components, and isolate exactly where students are weakest, and then teach to that weakness. They should also reduce the need for overly extensive feedback on long-answer questions, thus reducing teachers’ workload significantly.

My next post will explore teaching, and one book that I will suggest provides the clearest guidance.

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One thought on “Just one book: assessment

  1. Pingback: A guide to this blog | Reading all the Books

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