Ensuring you keep retrieval practice low stakes in the classroom

A recent research study explored both beneficial and detrimental effects of testing as a learning strategy, wanting to answer the following question: is retrieval practice a double-edged sword?

This blog was written by teacher and author of the Retrieval Practice books, Kate Jones. Be sure to follow her on twitter @KateJones_teach.

Here’s why it could be one: there is an overwhelming amount of evidence that retrieval practice is an effective strategy to enhance long-term memory and learning, but it involves regular testing. The latter can be stressful for students, which can have a negative impact on their memory and learning, defeating the purpose.

However, there is one crucial factor of harnessing the benefits of retrieval practice whilst avoiding detrimental stress associated with testing: ensuring retrieval practice tasks are low stakes. Below are five suggestions for you to ensure retrieval practice in your classroom is low stakes…

Book Retrieval Practice CPD

Make it a classroom norm

When retrieval practice becomes embedded across a curriculum and an established routine in a classroom, it normalises recall for students.

Explain clearly to your students that you use retrieval tasks to support their learning, and that it is a low stakes strategy. Students will eventually come to expect to carry out a retrieval task in the lesson, as it becomes the norm.

Regular retrieval practice removes the element of shock — it is not a pop quiz to be sprung on students. You could even tell your students that next lesson, there will be a retrieval quiz on a specific topic, further reducing the stakes and surprise element, and giving students the opportunity to prepare for the retrieval quiz should they wish to do so.


Remove question timers & leaderboards

There are many online tools and websites for quizzing inside the classroom. Be sure to find a quizzing platform that enables you to remove and/or amend the question timer and leaderboard features.

There are many issues with question timers and leaderboards:

  • They can encourage students to rush to answer questions. In their haste, they may not read the questions or options carefully and make mistakes that do not accurate reflect what they can or cannot recall. Not reading questions carefully can develop into a bad habit that should be avoided. Provide sufficient time for students to read and understand the question, and then time to recall the answer. How long it will take students to recall information from long-term memory will depend on retrieval strength (how accessible and retrievable information is). This can fluctuate from quick and confident recall to a slower response, the frustrating tip-of-the-tongue moment because retrieval strength is low.
  • For some students, the question timer can signal pressure and be associated with high stakes testing, which usually happens in timed conditions.
  • Leaderboards can motivate some students to compete with their peers, but we should move the focus away from this and instead encourage students to focus on their personal bests and closing the specific gaps in their knowledge and recall.


Low stakes feedback

Retrieval practice lends itself to self and peer assessment. Dylan Wiliam (Hendrick and Macpherson, 2017) has noted that “the best person to mark a test is the person who has just taken the test”.

Self and peer assessment are not only workload-friendly for the teacher (although teacher supervision and guidance is required), they also offer a low stakes element: they reinforce the idea that retrieval tasks are to improve student learning, not to record assessment data. Students can feel a greater sense of control when marking their own answers, and gain an awareness of their strengths and gaps in knowledge.

Most online quizzing tools will also provide instant feedback to students. Of course, the teacher can oversee the individual results and also look at the data from a class perspective, to gain an overview of common misconceptions or gaps in knowledge that can aid future planning. Feedback should be insightful and informative, for both the student and teacher, but not formal, workload-heavy or high stakes.


Provide opportunities for retrieval success

When designing retrieval tasks and questions, it is important to consider both retrieval success and retrieval challenge.

Barak Rosenshine suggested that, based on research findings, the optimal success rate for fostering student achievement is about 80 percent. This percentage shows that students are learning material, but also being challenged. Carefully consider the level of challenge and ensure the questions are desirably difficult with opportunities for retrieval success. Answering questions correctly and recalling information during a retrieval task can be very rewarding, satisfying and motivating, further reducing the stress — we want our students to embrace and welcome retrieval practice both inside and outside of the classroom.


No stakes

You can even take the low stakes element a step further by making retrieval practice tasks truly no stakes, by removing points and scores, putting the focus simply on the recall of content with no scores, grades or marks.

Another way to conduct a no stakes task is through anonymity. There are online tools such as mentimeter that do not require students to input their name — they simply enter a code provided by the teacher and then submit their answers. This can at times be frustrating for both student and teacher, as they doesn’t know who the responses belong to (unless specifically asked). But again, this can be useful to provide a snapshot overview of the class. Another way to anonymise retrieval tasks is to instruct students to use a quiz name (a fictional character for example). This way, they are still carrying out the act of recall but the anonymity reduces or can even remove any stress associated with high stakes

This blog was written by teacher and author of the Retrieval Practice books, Kate Jones. Be sure to follow her on twitter @KateJones_teach.

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