If there’s one way to instantly divide opinion in the teaching profession you only have to mention the word ‘testing’. It is seen by some as the evil part of education: created to destroy both pupil and teacher self-esteem. Often perceived in primary education as a one-hour written task, completed in silence, consequent data collection is then used to scrutinise quality of teaching and learning. At its worst, it is the high-stakes, end of key stage tests for Year 6 in England, where so much accountability is placed. Pupils sit a 1 hour reading test, currently not linked to the curriculum; a 45 min grammar test; a 20 min spelling test; and three maths tests (one 30 min arithmetic and two 40 min reasoning papers); totalling approximately less than 4 hrs. Make no mistake, schools are heavily judged and compared by this data, not just by Ofsted, but the local authority, parents and worse, each other. So is it really that surprising that tests have such a bad reputation?
Testing: assessment of learning or assessment for learning?
One of the issues with testing is that schools provide tests that are done to the pupils and not with them. For example, primary schools often collect data from tests at 3 points in the academic year, one per term. These are usually in the form of published written tests in reading, grammar and maths. But does this help to identify what the pupils do, and don’t know?
“The distinction between assessment of learning and assessment for learning is basically about the intention behind the assessment. So, if you’re assessing in order to help you teach better, that’s assessment for learning, and if you’re assessing in order to grade students, to rank them or to give them a score on a test, then that’s assessment of learning. But in classrooms I see plenty of what I would call formative intention but very little formative action. Teachers often say to me that they collect information in order to take action to help students, but if you follow it through, you find that the data never get acted on and the teaching never changes direction…If you’re not using the evidence to do something that you couldn’t have done without the evidence, you’re not doing formative assessment.” Dylan Wiliam, Institute of Education, University of London, Keynote (2006)
Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment talks of the principle that assessment should be about children producing more ‘stuff’ and that ‘stuff’ can be looked at by teachers. Teachers should be assessment kleptomaniacs to support learning and to assess if the children has understood the idea or key concepts knowledge and skills.
Working in a primary school we also believe that testing needs to be done more, not less. In fact, we would argue that in most schools, testing is going on all the time – teachers just don’t realise what they are doing is testing! And some of the most beneficial testing techniques, for students of all ages, to enhance learning in both recall and comprehension, is retrieval practice. (Dunlosky et al, 2013)
Types of testing (retrieval practice):
- Verbal Questioning
A staple of any teacher’s arsenal is questioning. And why do teachers ask questions? To test if pupils can remember prior learning. There are several aspects to consider however, when questioning (though I will not address them all here):
The most commonly used questioning methods are the least effective. There are many things wrong with asking a question to a class, where some hands go up, a teacher chooses a pupil who answers correctly and then moves on. One problem is that a teacher only learns what one student thinks, not how all the rest would have answered. Petty goes on to state that assertive questioning is more beneficial as for one, it means that all students are thinking and that they don’t have the choice of ‘opting out’. (Geoff Petty, Evidenced Based Teaching 2017).
Doug Lemov, Teach Like A Champion (2015), also adheres to the importance of wait times when asking questions to ensure every child has adequate time to respond. Teachers sometimes are too concerned with keeping pace and flow of lessons, that they sometimes move on too quickly.
Questions are good. Just be sure every child has an opportunity to think hard and not opt out.
- Multiple Choice Quizzing (MCQ)
Have you, as an adult, ever taken part in a quiz, be it a ‘pub quiz’, family board game or play-along with a television show, such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Have you noticed other people’s reactions when they get an answer correct? Perhaps a “YESSSSSS!” with a triumphant fist-pump for good measure! Try giving a MCQ to your class during and after teaching them about a given topic. Watch their reactions as they get more and more questions correct. The real beauty of MCQ is that if feedback is provided to incorrect answers, albeit to individuals or whole class, they will do better next time. MCQ is a powerful tool for learning that is in essence retrieval practice. Further reading can be accessed here https://teaching.unsw.edu.au/assessing-multiple-choice-questions#
One word of warning, when creating MCQ, Daisy Christodoulou does comment on the need to ensure that incorrect answers are plausible. It is no use, for example, when asking, ‘Who led the Nazi party in 1939?’ provided choices are too obscure or ‘silly’:
- Adolf Hitler
- Ed Sheeran
- Sir Francis Drake
This would consequently test deduction more than knowledge.
Online software such as Socrative can be used to test curriculum knowledge through MCQ. Children complete assigned quizzes individually or through teacher-led sessions. Furthermore, they can be aligned with Knowledge Organisers to test key knowledge throughout the year.
A Year 6 History Example of Multiple Choice Quizzing
A brain dump is a complete transfer of knowledge about a subject from a pupil’s brain to some other storage medium. This could be in the form of recorded speech, drawings or writing on paper.
The example below is from a Year 3 unit of work on the Ancient Egyptians. After several weeks, the children were asked to do a brain dump on plain paper. The examples are from a pupil with low prior attainment (left) and high prior attainment (right).
The teacher was pleased with some of the retention, particularly the usefulness of the River Nile. As we can see, on the left the pupil was able to talk about papyrus and where it came from. The pupil on the right remembered that flax came from a plant and in turn was manufactured into linen clothes. Incidentally, this knowledge was obtained through reading and instruction.
My colleague, Carl Badger, Assistant Headteacher, took brain dumping further by asking pupils to complete one for a foundation subject scrutiny we did together. Rather than the historical book trawl, looking at quality and quantity of tasks as well as reviewing presentation and even marking, pupils were prompted to show what they had learnt on paper through drawings and annotations. This made learning very real indeed.
We then took this one step further and presented the dumps back to staff for reflection. Below is an example of a reflection sheet that was completed by staff:
Think about current practice after a learning scrutiny/book trawl. Would systems facilitate such reflection in teachers?
If you asked EYFS practitioners how often they tested children, what would you imagine their response to be? Take phonics, for instance. The use of flashcards is a key feature of helping children to remember phonemes and their corresponding graphemes. Yet not every teacher of phonics would realise that what they are actually doing on a daily basis is both retrieval practice (flash card is shown and children response with appropriate phoneme) and interleaving (although a new phoneme may be introduced daily, the mixing up of practice such as blending, retrieval of ‘tricky’ words and written practice). For more guidance on interleaving see http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/8/11-1?rq=interleaving and http://www.learningscientists.org/blog/2016/3/28/weekly-digest-3?rq=interleaving.
Knowledge Organisers (KOs)
Knowledge Organisers are being used increasingly in schools to refine fundamental aspects of learning within a unit. Although not a test itself, it can be used to form part of a retrieval practice whereby pupils are given KOs that may be partially or fully blanked-out to see how much information the pupil can remember. Once completed, the teacher may share class or individual feedback and use these ‘gaps’ to revisit prior lessons.
Although all of these ‘tests’ can be used as a form of assessment, retrieval practice is first and foremost a learning tool.
The importance of spacing
Prior research has shown that the difficulty of initial retrieval is correlated with later retention (Karpicke & Roediger 2007; Benjamin, Bjork, & Schwartz, 1998), as well as direct evidence that delaying an initial retrieval attempt enhances performance on a later criterial test (Jacoby, 1978; Whitten & Bjork, 1977). Therefore, it’s recommended that a gap in time is used between retrieval. This would vary depending on the age of the child. Whereas a 7-day gap may be ideal for older pupils, for younger ones who are 4-6 a day gap may prove sufficient. So use retrieval practice to help make stuff stick and ensure you space your learning and testing so that they stick for longer.
C.Westby, Old Hill Primary School. Twitter: @eggegg80
C.Badger, Old Hill primary School. Twitter: @badgeml1968
Agarwal, P. K., Bain, P. M., & Chamberlain, R. W. (2012). The value of applied research: Retrieval practice improves classroom learning and recommendations from a teacher, a principal, and a scientist. Educational Psychology Review, 24, 437–448
Benjamin, A. S., Bjork, R. A., & Schwartz, B. L. (1998). The mismeasure of memory: When retrieval fluency is misleading as a metamnemonic index. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 127, 55– 68.
Dempster, F. N. (1997). Distributing and managing the conditions of encoding and practice. In E. L. Bjork & R. A. Bjork (Eds). Human Memory(pp. 197-236). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students’ learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 14, 4–58.
Karpicke, J. D., & Roediger, H. L. (2007). Expanding retrieval practice promotes short-term retention, but equally spaced retrieval enhances long-term retention. Journal of Experimental McDaniel et al. (2011) Journal of Educational Psychology 103:399–414
Roediger, H. L. III., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Psychological Science, 1, 181-210.