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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How do I revise English?

Around this time of year, “how do I revise for English?” becomes the clarion call of many a desperate student. It seems that no matter how many times I talk through precisely this question on a powerpoint slide in a lesson (from which students dutifully scribe notes), I still receive feedback from various tutors, mentors, parents and other interested parties who tell me: “she has no idea how to revise English.”

It struck me all too recently that perhaps the answer is to begin to “do” the revision in lesson time. It took me a long time to realize that much of teaching was a gradual recognition of things students did not know which I had assumed they did (my year 10, for example, who dropped the bombshell of not knowing what the word “vocabulary” meant, thus rendering half a year’s worth of feedback essentially meaningless (“is it ‘connectives’?”)). In the same way that I would not now set an essay for homework for any class that is not sixth form (as I did for the first homework for the first year 10 set 5 class I taught), I would not now send children into the wilderness to flail about with highlighters. We need to begin this in class.

Starting with year 13, I decided to show them the evidence. Last year, I read Make it Stick, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. One of the central messages in this text is that students learn by retrieving from their memories. So, as so many others have written at length about, not by re-reading, underlining and highlighting.

No: we need to learn by testing ourselves. This seems more straightforward when your subject is orientated around “facts.” Making a test on how many nitrates make up a – sorry, I don’t think I can finish the sentence without completely embarrassing myself. But you get the idea. English is a skill-based subject, right? How could you possibly quiz yourself?

Except when I think back on how I revised, I start to see a way this might work. I recall for GCSE English Language learning around forty-five key technical terms (oh, what I would give to retrieve that scrap of revision paper) using an alphabet-based mnemonic. Before even opening the paper, I wrote each word on the question paper. I then ticked off each term as I used it, thus, in my own mind, securing my top grade.

But it wasn’t until University that I really became self-test-super. By my final year, I had perfected the technique of mind-mapping everything I needed to know about a text (key quotes, critical quotes, key ideas, main concepts), hiding the mind-map, writing it again, checking back with the mind-map to see what I’d missed, adding the ones I’d missed in a different colour, and beginning again.

This seemed like a sensible way forward for my year 13s in preparation for their AQA Lit B “Texts and Genres” exam. Following our weekly “quote quiz” (in which I blank out some key words to test they have learned some quotes from one of the three texts, then go through each quote, writing in the words and reviewing the comments we might be able to make about them), I shared some of the wisdom from Make it Stick:

•       “Learning is deeper and more enduring if it is effortful.”

•       “The act of retrieving learning from memory has two profound benefits. One, it tells you what you know and don’t know, and therefore where to focus further study to improve the areas where you’re weak. Two, recalling what you have learned causes your brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what you already know and makes it easier for you to recall in the future”

•       “Retrieval practice—recalling facts or concepts or events from memory—is a more effective learning strategy than review by rereading. Flashcards are a simple example. Retrieval strengthens the memory and interrupts forgetting. A single, simple quiz after reading a text or hearing a lecture produces better learning and remembering than rereading the text or reviewing lecture notes.”

In order to begin, students would create a ten-question quiz on each text. I could then collate all of these into a handy “quiz-pack” for each student to assist in their revision. I advised students to use the quotes, but also the key critical ideas we were engaging with, and shared with them the mind-map idea.

This is all a work in progress, and not something I’ve previously done with classes. I do think it is worth considering, and I will report back on how year 13 find it. I’m planning to share the same concepts and ideas with year 11 later on in the year. I’ve posted the slides below exactly as I taught them to year 13.

Lesson 9 critical views Frankenstein 4.2.15