George Lucas Educational Foundation

Assessment: Lower Stakes, Raise Retention

Students learn better through retrieval-enhanced learning which can be practiced with smaller quizzes, daily questions, opportunities for reflection, and personalized oral quizzes.

May 6, 2015

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:

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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