Pupils struggling to recall yesterday’s lesson? Prompt them to retrieve information from memory by embedding regular quizzes into your curriculum design, says Jon Hutchinson...
Cutting edge research from cognitive science is gifting teachers with an understanding of how the brain learns, and how we can adapt instruction, curriculum and assessment to be more effective.
Much of this research has only taken place in the last few decades, meaning that it is taking some time to filter into the profession and challenge received wisdom.
For example, teachers are commonly told that ‘weighing the pig does not make it any fatter’, which has led to calls in some quarters for less testing, especially in primary school.
Though this advice is doubtless well intended, it appears to fly in the face of one of the most robust findings in psychological research: the testing effect.
Empirical study into the manner in which memory operates began way back in the 1880s, when Hermann Ebbinghaus measured the rate that information is lost after initially learning it.
The conclusions were clear, and have been repeated in multiple contexts and under a huge variety of conditions since: everybody forgets things unless they revisit that information regularly.
In the classroom, this means that we should be entirely unsurprised (or cross) by our pupils struggling to recall yesterday’s lesson.
Indeed, it is an inevitable and perfectly natural part of the learning process. Our job is to interrupt this forgetting, by prompting the children to retrieve information from memory.
It is for this reason that, as part of our curriculum design at Reach Academy Feltham, we have embedded regular quizzes into our curriculum design.
Aside from Ebbinghaus, our decisions have been influenced by more recent research into retrieval practice, spearheaded by professorial power couple Robert and Elizabeth Bjork (very much the Beyoncé and Jay-Z of the cognitive science world).
They suggest that any information tucked away in our memory can be measured in two ways.
First, there is the speed at which you can recall some fact or skill: the ‘retrieval strength’. Second, we can consider how well connected and robust the knowledge is – known as ‘storage strength’.
New information which is not linked to anything else stored in your long-term memory will have a low retrieval strength, as well as a low storage strength.
This is the reason that they write the hotel room number on your card when checking in: you will probably forget it. By the end of the week, the retrieval strength of your hotel room number will have increased, by regularly having to recall it.
However, the storage strength is likely to remain low; you probably won’t be able to recall it in a year or two.
Other information – perhaps the name of a child in your class back at primary school – could have a high storage strength (they are connected to tonnes of other memories) but a low retrieval strength (what was their name again? Patrick? Peter?).
Finally, information can have both high retrieval and high storage strength. An example might be the name of your current best friend.
This, of course, is what we are aiming for in what we teach. And based on what we know about how memory works, we think that the testing effect is an indispensable tool to achieve it.
There are a few different ways that we can capitalise on this within lessons.
First, always begin a lesson with retrieval practice – a short quiz, including five, multiple-choice questions of previously learnt material.
We include these quizzes in the booklets discussed in the previous article in this curriculum series. Beginning with retrieval practice ensures a calm, focused and motivational start to the lesson.
Let’s take an example. In the first lesson of our unit on Roman Britain, the class learn about how Romulus killed his brother to found the city.
Within that lesson, there will be some key facts that we don’t want the children to forget. So the very first thing that we do at the start of the next lesson is ask all children to answer the question, “According to myth, who founded Rome?”
These quizzes are no stakes. That is to say, we don’t collect in any scores, and we don’t tell children off or express disappointment if they get a question wrong. That is not the purpose.
Instead, what we are trying to do is deliberately interrupt the forgetting curve. It is better to think of this regular quizzing as a learning event in itself, as opposed to an assessment.
It doesn’t really matter whether the children get the question right or wrong; they benefit either way.
Writing good multiple-choice questions is devilishly difficult. Ours focus on the most important things we want them to remember from previous lessons.
The knowledge organiser is a good resource to start from here, as it should include the core information.
I often begin planning a lesson by asking myself, “What are the five things that I want all children to remember by the end of this lesson?” These then become the targets for quiz questions in the following lesson.
In the above example, we would include the correct answer (Romulus), but then also add in plausible distractors. These would include Remus, Julius Caesar and Tiberinus (the god who saved Romulus and Remus from the river).
Children rack their brains, circle what they think is the correct answer, then move onto the next question. A few minutes later, I’ll switch to the next slide which has all of the correct answers on, and pupils can self-mark, correcting anything they got wrong.
While this takes place, I’ll whizz around the classroom and make a note of any common misconceptions. The whole episode takes around five minutes.
So, while quizzing may not be the flashiest or most fashionable classroom activity, there is an abundance of science outlining the learning rewards.
Why not add in a few quizzes into your next unit of work, and see for yourself the improvement in recall from the children?
When I first began using retrieval practice, I made a few mistakes. The first was using funny or whacky answers within the distractors.
Since I very much consider myself to be an as yet undiscovered comedian of world-class talent (who is, frankly, wasted on primary school children), I can’t resist popping in a humorous answer to elicit a giggle.
When asking the pupils “Why did Alexander the Great weep?” I’ll want to include an option like, “because the Nandos in Persia had run out of chicken” (wasted, I tell you).
The problem with adding in these silly options is that they distract children from what you actually want them to remember (that “there were no more worlds to conquer”).
They’ll tell you about how funny it was to think about Alexander having a Nandos. Some children may not get the joke and actually think Alexander the Great did eat Nandos.
The correct answer, a wonderful piece of cultural knowledge and a useful window into the success and ambition of the Macedonian King, gets lost somewhere in laughter. The kids just remember Alexander eating a Nandos.
The second mistake is to let children look back at their notes. In doing so, we kill the benefits of the testing effect, because children are not having to try and recall from memory; they are just rereading and copying down the answer.
It may seem counterintuitive, but that effortful struggle is exactly what produces the strengthened retrieval in future.
Download some example quizzes you can use and adapt here.