Retrieval practice, especially through low-stakes quizzing, seems to be all the rage – and with good reason. The evidence for the impact of retrieval on learning is compelling. However, there seems to be little research on how the effects may vary in different subjects or even on how the research may be applied in real school settings with the quizzes embedded in the curriculum over a long period of time.
Our head of history, Emma Smith, and I, as head of geography, were interested in learning more about how we might make retrieval practice work better in our subjects and ensure we were implementing the theory well.
We embarked on a year-long research project with the support of the Institute for Effective Education into the efficacy of low-stakes quizzes in Year 8 geography and history. During the year, four of our eight geography and history classes started one lesson a week with quick low-stakes quizzes while the other class continued on without them.
Retrieval practice: low-stakes quizzes
The quizzes consisted of 10 short questions drawn from previous lessons and topics that year. At the end of the year, all the classes sat a final assessment and we looked to see if there was any difference in progress from the start of the year to the end between the group who did the quizzes and those who did not.
What we found was interesting. The impact of the quizzes seemed far greater in the geography classes than the history ones. The reason for this took some unpicking but I think we may have stumbled on something with important implications for how we do retrieval practice in future: in geography, we embedded the quizzes into the lesson.
To be honest, this wasn’t a deliberate choice, it just didn’t occur to us to do it any other way. We would do the quizzes, give the pupils the answers and then we would discuss the questions and any misconceptions that seemed to be arising.
Low-stakes quizzing: what works?
In history, however, the pupils took the quiz at the start and then did the lesson. There was a clear break between the quiz stopping and the lesson starting, whereas in geography one would bleed into the other.
We also found that, in geography, we tended to use what had come up in the quiz during the rest of the lesson. If pupils had a question about the different forms of plate movement in the quiz, this would be referred to when looking at the landscapes of East Africa or East Sussex, for instance.
Another factor was that the nature of the questions we asked in the geography quizzes was slightly different to those being asked in history.
While the history questions were more likely to ask for the recall of dates or people’s names, in geography, we would ask why or how something happened. This involves greater thought and, to use Fiorella and Mayer’s term, it generates learning. Students were having to select information from their memories but also organise it to apply it to a new situation. They were, in effect, having to think harder.
The conclusion I have reached from engaging in this research is that, as we expected, low-stakes quizzing is useful in the classroom. Having pupils think back to things they have previously been taught is an important stage in the learning process. If we don’t use it, we lose it.
However, I would also conclude that there are more and less effective ways of doing these low-stakes quizzes. If we want to get as much as we can from them, we should make sure that questions link to the lesson we are about to teach, so that pupils have new situations in which to apply their prior learning; and we should make some of the questions a little more complex than the recall of particular names and dates – we want students to recall reasons and processes as well.
I am a big fan of research-informed teaching, but this doesn’t minimise the role of the teacher in evaluating how this research looks in the classroom. We are the experts in teaching and we need this expertise to translate the theory into practice.
Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book, Powerful Geography: A Curriculum with Purpose in Practice, is out soon. He tweets @EnserMark