When daily quiz regimes become lethal mutations of retrieval practice.

One of the most common areas of development in schools over the last few years has been in the area of retrieval practice – supporting students to remember what they’ve been taught, gradually, steadily deepening and extending their schema for the material in hand, building fluency and confidence. However, whilst there has been a lot of superb creative practice in this area, I see problems where a very sound idea about the importance of regular reviews of prior learning is morphed into a rigid, formulaic quizzing regime that, in turn, morphs into a regime of poor performative quizzing where many student are not learning anything. Rather than it being a consolidatory reinforcement of their learning, plugging a few gaps, students feel they are being quizzed on the thin air of vaguely-encountered wisps of disconnected factoids from a dim past.

At its worst, this is what is happening (based on multiple specific examples..):

The school leaders decide ‘retrieval practice is a good thing’ so let’s make it a non-negotiable (kill me now!) that lessons start with a quiz. That means every teacher, every subject, every lesson – because this makes it happen! Drive that change!

Teachers operating in this regime also believe that retrieval practice is a good thing; also, quizzes are a good form of retrieval practice. They are believers. But, in any case, the MAT/SLT have mandated daily quizzing so quizzing must be done. Let’s quiz!

Into the mix we get the idea of spaced practice… let’s interrupt the forgetting curve by checking back on stuff that wasn’t just learned yesterday – but also last week and the month before. We love a system… so let’s systematise the quizzing structure; it makes it easy for everyone: Three questions from yesterday; one from last week and one from last month. Programme that in folks.. Fool proof it!

So, here we have the morphed regime in action. The Do Now Five A Day Quiz is ready. It’s science (for example) so the questions today are:

  1. Name the organs: (expected answers: trachea, bronchiole, diaphragm)
  2. How is the blood leaving lungs different to blood entering lungs?
  3. Complete the equation. Glucose plus Oxygen –>
  4. In the circuit what would be the current reading on the ammeter?
  5. Why is a hypothermia blanket shiny on both sides?

Teacher says – good morning everyone, your DNA is on the board (Do Now Activity). You have five minutes.

James writes DNA and the routine 1 to 5 in his book.

  1. a: Windpipe. b. lungs. c. IDK (doesn’t know)
  2. It is moving faster
  3. Energy and carbon dioxide
  4. Can’t do it
  5. ??

Time’s up.

Teacher reveals the answers on the next slide. Check your answers guys. Give yourself a mark out of 5. Question 1 you need 2 for half a mark. Ok. Who got them all right… Well done Alice.. anyone else.. Ah well.. now green pen your answers. (Green pen for corrections).

James gets out his trusty green pen and tries to write all the answers down: Trahea; Brociolli daiphram; oxygenated; deoxgynated; glucose; 1.7Amps ; Bad emitter; good reflector. It’s a struggle to write all this down in the time permitted so it’s a bit of a scrawl. But he tried.

And then we’re onto today’s lesson on…. Homeostatis. More Knowledge. Yay.

In the teacher’s mind they have followed the cogsci; they have followed the MAT protocol. They have quizzed. Quizzing was done exactly as per the Non Negotiables Check List.

And what about James? He had a go. He self-marked and green penned. He’s been entirely compliant with expectations. Job done.

But wait……what has James actually learned? Does he now know any more than he did before….? I’m going to suggest that he has learned next to nothing at all – except to confirm that there’s a ton of stuff he doesn’t know. To him, it’s not stuff he can’t remember; it’s stuff he never ever knew. At best there’s a shadowy sketchy trace of these words; a flick of familiarity when the answers came up on the board. But he still can’t explain what an alveolus does, or say what V= IR means or what ’emitter’ means or say ‘trachea’ out loud with any confidence. But hey… green pen! He’s been quizzed. He’s green penned. Robert BjorkhausEnShine something something would be proud.

You see the problem.. and believe me, this is not even much of an exaggeration.

Green Penning a Quiz is not learning. And yet.. every lesson, every subject, every day, every week… there it is. The roots of the issues here, to my mind, are a lack of understanding of what constitutes good retrieval practice – in theory and in practice. To anyone who is basing their equivalent regime on Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, let’s see what he actually says. Scroll through.. I pasted it in for you.

Rosenshine talks about ‘review’ and then shares various examples, only one of which is a quiz. However the emphasis is very much on the need to activate students’ prior knowledge that will be useful for subsequent learning. That is what a daily review is for. As discussed in the post below, students’ knowledge can be extremely tenuous at first. They need time to rehearse and consolidate, making connections to what they already know, before we can start talking about a generative process that requires more solid recall.

The diagram below, by Efrat Furst as featured in Walkthrus Vol 3, explains this really well.

When I see quizzing regimes going wrong, students are being asked questions as if they are at stage 4 or 5 when actually they’re barely at stage 2. Each question, for them, would need extensive exploration, rehearsal, repetition. They are miles from the path-strengthening phase; the paths are barely formed.

The weekly and monthly reviews Rosenshine (and others) promote are where we might scan a wider domain but even here he isn’t suggesting we spring random questions on students like it’s a pub quiz. In my view, it’s really important to use quizzing to build students’ confidence and their agency – ie students with the capacity to study independently. This means they need the quizzing regime to allow them to study and succeed – rather than develop the learned helplessness I see so often; that sense that knowing things is all rather out of your control, a matter of chance – sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t. Done well, students have a fair idea of the material they will be quizzed on and are then expected to prepare, using the self-study techniques they learn at school.

As I say in this post, an important feature of successful retrieval practice is to specify the knowledge so students know what they are meant to know and can check whether they do, studying further where they have gaps. You can even go so far as giving questions in advance, making it all very transparent.

Then we need mechanisms for dealing with wrong answers. It’s simply not remotely enough to say a correct answer out loud and then hope and assume that students now know that answer. The simple act of writing something down doesn’t mean you’ve connected it to your prior knowledge, integrating it into your schema. Green penning is only really going to work where the student needs a bit of reinforcement in an area they largely understand. It’s not going to teach anyone anything. So, if you set a very wide range of questions, and students turn out not to know the answers, you have a big task to go over all the key ideas. Typically teachers don’t have time to re-teach it all so the weakest students with the worst quiz outcomes only get a speed-teach whizz-through of ideas they don’t really understand all over again.

Done well, a quiz is anticipated, within a topic range that is small enough to prepare for and to re-teach if needed. Students are expected to study (make some effort!) so that they have a chance to perform well. This then allows the checking and feedback process to focus on a few gaps and key ideas. It’s largely consolidatory. And, crucially, it is just one of many routines for checking that might also include explaining, telling the story etc – as per this Five Ways post.

Five Ways to: Do Daily Review

Five Ways. A series of short posts summarising some everyday classroom practices. It’s now very common practice for teachers to begin a lesson with some form of retrieval practice activity. This…

So, to conclude… I suggest people undertake a proper evaluation of their retrieval regimes and evaluate whether the least confident students are actually learning. Focus less on whether the routine has been followed and more on what students know and don’t know. Be prepared to flex the regime so that teachers can adapt and create checking processes appropriate for their subject within a varied diet of daily review activities. Tool students up so they can study really hard and aim to do well rather than trying to catch them out. And, most importantly, do more real-time rehearsal and checking for understanding involving all students at the early stages so that learning is build on firmer ground and retrieval practice is actually ‘practice’.

In Action Masterclass: Here’s a recording of my latest In Action masterclass on this theme:

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