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Assessment: Lower Stakes, Raise Retention

Geoff Richman

Academic Resource Center Director, The Lovett School
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Two older girls side by side at desk looking at binders speaking with each other

Assessment is a hot-button issue in today's K-12 education landscape, especially when one places the word "standardized" in front. But not all tests and exams need raise hackles or blood pressure. Indeed, there is a certain kind of exam that has been shown to increase learning in the classroom without undue dread: low-stakes assessment.

Retrieval-Enhanced Learning

Henry Roediger III, professor of psychology at Washington University in St. Louis (WUStL) and author, with Mark McDaniel and Peter Brown, of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014), has conducted research showing that "tests serve students best when they're integrated into the regular business of learning and the stakes are not make-or-break, as in standardized testing." ("How Tests Make Us Smarter," The New York Times, 7/18/14) He suggests that we can lower testing stakes by including assessment within the context of regular class periods rather than isolating them as stand-alone judgments.

New York Times science writer Benedict Carey, in his book How We Learn (2014), explains why this kind of low-stakes testing, as Roediger puts it, "serves students best" -- answering questions aids in retention. Our brains will store new learning faster when we are forced to locate the information in our minds and then bring it forward consciously. Testing makes us tap into both our working and long-term memories in order to find the information. It is this effort of retrieval that increases the likelihood of remembering the information whenever we may want to use it again.

Pooja Agarwal, a postdoctoral fellow at WUStL who oversees such retrieval-enhanced learning (researchers began by calling their studies "test-enhanced learning" but found that word too incendiary for teachers) at a school district in Illinois, points to another positive outcome:

"When a quiz is used as a learning strategy, there are fewer consequences and less stress. The quizzes help students figure out what they got right, what they got wrong, and what they need to continue studying. And the teachers themselves can figure out what concepts they might need to go over again." (Rebecca King, 2014)

Student learning improves not solely because our brains are wired to remember that which we will be quizzed on, but also because teachers recognize where to provide more and pointed instruction to increase comprehension.

8 Low-Stakes Suggestions

How do we take this shift in considering assessment and put it into action? Please consider the following as templates or stepping-off points for your own designs:

1. Smaller Chunks

Make a unit test (or use the one that comes with the textbook's curriculum), and then break that summative examination into shorter, formative chunks, like turning a baseball-stadium hot dog into a handful of Lit'l Smokies. Create three or four smaller quizzes that will assess the same material, and have your students take them every few days. Their learning will grow stronger with each one, and they will fare better on your actual unit test.

2. Q&A

Give a question or problem at the beginning of class. Incite students' learning from the previous class and prime them for the day's lesson. Have them swap their responses with a classmate for an expeditious check for understanding. (The same could occur at the end of class, though the importance of feedback should not be overlooked -- take time to correct responses rather than simply having students hand them in to you as they walk out the door.)

3. Homework That Counts

Score one homework assignment each week as an assessment grade. There's no need to change the design of the learning. Just make sure the assignment is reviewing material. Tell your students, "This one will count," and in so doing, the research suggests they will store that learning for longer -- perhaps even until the next day's class.

4. Specific Recall

After reading a poem, article, or section of a story, give your fourth-through-seventh grade scholars a blank piece of paper and have them recall as much as they can. Distribute this practice a certain amount of days later, and then again before the summative assessment. Specific recall, as Carey shows, will up the chances for the literature to stick.

5. Writing Prompt

A similar strategy for older readers would be to provide a writing prompt for a paragraph answering a question, making a connection, or arguing a side.

6. Personalized Quiz

For an alternative low-stakes assessment, consider a one-on-one oral quiz with the teacher.

7. Reflection

Have students write a reflection on their most recent long-term project, using explicitly-modeled metacognitive language. By examining and then writing about their successes and struggles, and in considering your feedback as well, students will more quickly recognize how to specifically improve next time.

8. Graded Outline

Grade the outline of a research paper -- does it have all the requisite parts that the rubric suggests? While the grade for the outline is not a deal breaker, placing emphasis on this crucial component of the process can ensure that the student pays close attention to the expectations and prepares to write a more comprehensive report.

Embedding and Retrieval

We can shift our perspective on what we are trying to accomplish with our quizzes and tests -- and recent research suggests we should. Practicing retrieval allows us to embed our learning, from song lyrics to civics, from French to fractions, in ways that give us the best chance to remember and use our learning -- and lyrics -- later. Keep the stakes low, build stamina, and enjoy classrooms with students less focused on the ominous final and more on how to connect what they have already learned on previous assessments to whatever they will be learning next.

Have you tried low-stakes assessments? Have you noticed a difference in how your students learn?

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Geoff Richman

Academic Resource Center Director, The Lovett School

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Liz Schott's picture
Liz Schott
Superintendent, Kentfield School District

I like the idea of students using assessments as connectors between past and future learning. Assessment results are vital to a teacher's ability to monitor learning and adjust instruction. Yet for students, assessments often seem to be disconnected to what they are learning. It would be great if assessments could also help students make sense of their own progress through a subject. Clearly the type of assessments you are recommending have a far greater chance of facilitating these connections than do end-of-course finals or high-stakes standardized tests.

Geoff Richman's picture
Geoff Richman
Academic Resource Center Director, The Lovett School

Thank you for joining the discussion and sharing your wisdom, Liz. Little assessments along the way can facilitate the 'past and future learning' to which you refer by showing students what they do and do not understand and this, in turn, should provide guidance to teachers about what gaps to fill in and what the next steps should be. Low-stakes assessments have much to offer all parties in the classroom.

Nadine Petrie-Waymyers's picture

Excellent article, low stakes testing and testing in smaller chunks should be implemented in all schools. District and state leaders often advice teachers that effective learning is gained through teaching our students in digestible bites. Yet, they force an eight year old child (a 3rd grader) who is not developmentally ready, to sit for 80 minutes to take a standardized test.

I often do Homework That Counts and Personalized Quizzes with my students. I also utilized Smaller Chunks for some assessments this year. Thank you for this article.

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Geoff Richman's picture
Geoff Richman
Academic Resource Center Director, The Lovett School

Nadine,
Thank you for your thoughts and ideas about providing "digestible bites" for our students, no matter their age.

James's picture

Interesting article. As a science teacher, I like to employ this strategy with lab reports. I make each section of the report its own low-stakes assessment item.

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