What I’ve learnt in lockdown about retrieval practice and how it will change my teaching

Fresh insights into how retrieval practice can aid memory retention

Co-Head of Humanities

Pre-lockdown, I used some form of retrieval practice at the start of every lesson. With KS3 this usually took the form of a verbal recap of the content covered in the previous lesson, and for KS4 & 5 I used low-stakes quizzes. Once lockdown started, I continued to use low-stakes quizzes at the start of virtual lessons on Google Hangouts in Year 12 Geography lessons. However, instead of instructing students to write the answers at the back of their books, I assigned each of them a Google Document so I could see all students typing their answers in real time. 

These are my reflections from watching retrieval practice in action with Year 12 students in virtual School 21

1. My ‘low-stakes quizzes’ were not as low-stakes as I thought they were

Pre-lockdown, I would often assess the quizzes by cold-calling a student to share their answers with the class. When calling upon some students in my class, they consistently replied that they ‘didn’t know’ or ‘couldn’t remember’. Upon observing these students approach the questions on a Google Document, I saw them type a partially correct answer, delete and edit it several times and then move on. This showed me that they may actually have some idea of the answer, but by relying on cold-calling in physical school, I was inadvertently upping the stakes considerably and thus discouraging the least confident students from participating fully. However, in virtual school, I was able to review all students’ attempts at the questions and I was able to clarify misconceptions in real time without drawing attention to which student prompted my clarification. Therefore, when I go back to school, I will continue to use Google Documents as a way to deliver the quizzes to reduce my reliance on cold-calling.

2. Reviewing answers at a class level rather than individual allows me to reflect on the quality of the question

In one quiz, I asked students ‘What are the three strategies to mitigate against earthquakes?’. I was expecting the broad categories of ‘mitigate against the event, vulnerability and losses’. Some students did give this answer, however others responded (also correctly) with specific strategies such as ‘practicing drills in schools, building aseismic buildings, training search and rescue teams’. Having the chance to see how a whole class interpreted this question in different ways led me to consider how rewording the question would lead to better quality assessment and recall. By asking ‘How can countries mitigate against human vulnerability?’ I would assess their understanding of mitigation against human vulnerability by their recall of specific strategies in this category, which is more rigorous than my original recall question. On return to school, I will continue to review student answers at a whole class level to examine different interpretations and assess the rigour of my questions.

3. Students work at very different speeds

I was aware of this in the physical classroom, however prior to watching the students type in real time, I had not appreciated that there may be a full five minutes between the first and last student finishing answering the questions. From now and when I return to school, I will also include open-ended analysis questions alongside recall questions to give quick-finishers the opportunity to engage for the full time rather than waiting for the others to finish. Analysis is assessed at A Level so there is no reason why this longer style of question cannot be included in low-stakes retrieval quizzes.

To conclude, the lockdown has given me new insights about how to enhance what I was already doing in the classroom. I am going to improve my low-stakes quizzes by continuing to use quizzes on Google Docs, I am going to use this technology to help improve the quality of my questioning and I am re-thinking how I challenge the higher-attaining students using more open-ended, analysis tasks.

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