Flying without wings

How assessment can support retrieval

Unusually for a supply teacher, I am delivering an INSET to the whole staff next week on assessment. This is an area that not only I am passionate about but also believe has the single largest impact on student outcomes.

Standardising the assessment progress not only allows the teacher and the student to have a laser sharp understanding of the strengths and areas for development but also normalises ‘pressure’ which allows a student to cope mentally with the demands of a real exam much more effectively.

Schools generally either over complicate assessments or try to shoe horn them into single ‘assessment weeks’. Assessment is a continuous process it should be an integrated part of any scheme of work. Learn – Assess – Reflect – Test – Repeat, this straightforward model not only informs next steps, but also helps to consolidate on previous learning, continually building ‘mastery’ of a particular topic. Retrieval practice in action.

Assessment can be broken down into three questions.
  • What do students know?
  • What skills have students developed?
  • To What extent can students apply their knowledge and skills?
Nathan Fertig via Unsplash

Those of you who have had the pleasure of being in my classroom will know the analogy I use of Elton John, will know the metaphor that sitting an exam is like Elton John playing a concert in front of ninety thousand at Wembley. Elton doesn’t just turn up and play, he has practiced for hour upon hour, not only perfecting his skill, but also normalising the ‘pressure’ so that he is not fazed by so many people. Similarly police horses are trained in this way, so they do not react to the crowd, to normalise the process of sitting exams is the single most effective way of ensuring success.

So how do we go about assessing our students to ensure they make continuous progress. Research gives us some clues here.

The academic research bit

Hatties research in 2009 – Visible Learning is nothing less than a synthesis of more than 50.000 studies covering more than 80 million pupils. Hattie uses the statistical measure effect size to compare the impact of many influences on students’ achievement, e.g. class size, holidays, feedback, and learning strategies. The following examples may give an impression of the scope of Hattie’s findings:

  • What’s bad? Retention, summer holidays
  • What’s neither bad nor good? Team teaching, open vs. traditional classes
  • What helps a bit? Class size, homework
  • What helps a bit more? Cooperative learning, direct instruction
  • What helps a lot? Feedback, Student-teacher relationships

Hattie’s round-up of core influences for better learning outcomes has many implications of what is good teaching and how to become a successful school: First, teachers are the central aspect of successful learning in schools. Second, Hattie’s results suggest that school reform should concentrate on what is going on in the classroom and not on structural reforms.

John Hattie developed a way of ranking various influences in different meta-analyses related to learning and achievement according to their effect sizes. In his ground-breaking study “Visible Learning” he ranked 138 influences that are related to learning outcomes from very positive effects to very negative effects. Hattie found that the average effect size of all the interventions he studied was 0.40. Therefore he decided to judge the success of influences relative to this ‘hinge point’, in order to find an answer to the question “What works best in education?”

Hattie studied six areas that contribute to learning: the student, the home, the school, the curricula, the teacher, and teaching and learning approaches. But Hattie did not only provide a list of the relative effects of different influences on student achievement. He also tells the story underlying the data. He found that the key to making a difference was making teaching and learning visible. He further explained this story in his book “Visible learning for teachers“.

John Hattie updated his of 138 effects to 150 effects in Visible Learning for Teachers (2011), and more recently to a list of 195 effects in The Applicability of Visible Learning to Higher Education (2015). His research is now based on nearly 1200 meta-analyses – up from the 800 when Visible Learning came out in 2009. According to Hattie the story underlying the data has hardly changed over time even though some effect sizes were updated and we have some new entries at the top, at the middle, and at the end of the list. Hattie’s research has been updated in 2011 and 2015.  In his new work of 2015 where he worked with Higher Education Hattie states that the most powerful factor influencing learning and achievement was “Teacher estimates of Achievement”

So what is the best way to assess LONG TERM understanding and knowledge. This includes combining current knowledge with previous knowledge and testing on knowledge regularly.  These methods if done regularly improve memory but also enable sound judgements of knowledge and understanding.

Examples include:

  • Regular quizzes – at the start and end of lessons, in time when you want to get the class to pack up or for a “brain break” after 30 min in the lesson (if a long lesson). 10 questions in rough back of the exercise book – answers only.  Check mark – small prize for highest score.
  • Pupil to pupil quiz – teacher can start but best for pupils to start  -last one to pack away, nearest birthday, last one to arrive in the lesson, or on a rota, Pupil A poses question ( they need to know the answer) they chose pupil B to answer ( countdown clock goes on ) if pupil B answers correctly he then asks pupil C etc…
  • Online quizzes – there are lots available, but quizz seems to be the most popular currently!
  • Total Recall – quick knowledge recap.  
  • Multiple choice questions, – these work really well if the answers are close to each other and some get them wrong and will debate it!
  • Word searches (where the search is complete and the pupils write the clues/definition) .
  • Pupils all write a test/quiz on a key topic on the spec for homework.  These are then used during their lessons with the whole class. 

However nothing beats practicing a test under test conditions, normalising that processs of working under pressure without notes and nd/or aids to help access the information.

At Castle Tutoring we recommend the 30 minutes on/10 mintues off model for revision to help normalise the pressure and get used to understanding how to write exam style questions.

A student picks a subject and a topic for a two hour revision slot.
  • 30 mins – Revise the topic, make notes preferably in the Cornell method, flashcards etc. DO NOT USE highlighters or simply read the books
  • 10 mins – relax – make a cup of tea, look at your phone etc.
  • 30 mins – Attempt an exam question under exam conditions, as tempting as it sounds, no notes, no phones.
  • 10 mins relax
  • 30 mins – check your answers vs the notes and mark schemes, examiners reports etc. can you make improvements? if so where? write them out.

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