Testing Times

I wonder how much of what I have taught over the years has been almost immediately forgotten? When I think back to my own schooling all those years ago, and what I can remember from it, I’d have to assume the majority has been lost. I spent 5 years learning German and at one point I knew enough to get a C at GCSE but what am I left with? I can say please and thank you, I can say what my name is and ask how someone is. I can recite a short speech about my home town that I memoried for the speaking part of the exam. That’s all folks. The rest has fallen prey to the old axiom “use it or lose it”.

The reason I have been pondering such maudlin thoughts on remembering and forgetting is that I’ve been reading a lot recently about testing and retrieval. Over the summer I read a great collection of books from educational writers coming from a cognitive science background such as Make it Stick (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel), Seven Myths about Education (Christodoulou), What if everything you knew about education was wrong? (Didau) and What every teacher needs to know about psychology (Didau again, this time with Rose). 

Two things keep arising from these books.

  1. Pupils need to have secure subject knowledge
  2. The best way for them to secure this knowledge is to test them.

The idea, as I understand it, is that to be able to access information in the long term memory we need to frequently retrieve this information (which is why I can remember to say thank you in German but not ask where the cinema is). The more we struggle to recall something the stronger the retrieval becomes (which is why you want a gap between first learning something and trying to recall it). Students can test themselves and get this benefit but it is important that they have the correct answer to hand or their errors will become permanent. So testing in this case is not being used to assess what is learnt but to aid learning. 

Having read these books I have started to incorporate regular testing in my lessons. My Year 12s know that every Friday we will have a test of the material we have gone through that week along with a few questions from earlier in the topic. The tests are low threat. I don’t record their marks but just have a glance in the back of their book now and again to see who has done what. 

Just 10 questions that take minutes to plan and which they can mark themselves afterwards. 5 minutes once a week and it seems to be having an impact in their work. Their use of subject vocabulary is improving and they are more secure on describing processes. Without these basics in place they can’t do much else. I have started including these tests in my GCSE classes and will now do the same at KS3.

I’m not sure when these kinds of regular tests fell out of favour in schools. They are something I associate with American portrayals of schools in TV and films rather than something I have seen as either a student or a teacher. Perhaps everyone else has been doing them in secret and I have just been missing out. Whatever the case they will be a regular fixture of my lessons. Unless I forget about them. 

If you have taken the time to read then “Danke”.


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