I’ve made the case before that our curriculum and assessment isn’t designed with memory in mind. Here’s what I spoke about at ResearchEd York: what we can do to improve how much our pupils remember of what they’ve learned.
There’s a mismatch between what science suggests and what schools do on this.
A century of scientific study converges on a key insight for our design of curriculum and assessment: an insight that can be put work immediately, widely, at no cost, and to great effect.
In the scientific literature there are hundreds (if not thousands!) of studies on this, some from as early as 1907, and the research in the last decade is particularly prolific:
In 2013, five cognitive scientists (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan, Willingham 2013) collated hundreds such studies and showed that practice testing has a higher utility for retention and learning than other techniques:
Cognitive psychologists (Roediger, Putnam and Smith 2011) have summarised from this research the many benefits of low-stakes or no-stakes testing:
The scientists’ review of the vast literature shows that these benefits are enduring (Dunlosky, et al, 2013):
The questions to ask of this research as a teacher are: what’s the optimal format and frequency of low-stakes testing or retrieval practice? For simplicity, I’ll refer to this as quizzing, as Roediger, McDaniel and others do in their work.
Applied research suggests multiple-choice questions are as effective as short-answer questions. The latest research study is as recent as March 2014, so this is a fast-evolving field, and one to keep an eye on.
There’s also a question of whether regular frequency or longer spacing is more important:
It’s encouraging that the research evidence resonates with the work of successful school leaders like Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, who works in over 1,000 schools with 90% poverty rates and presided over dramatic academic achievement:
Now, over the last decade, eleven cognitive psychologists have taken over a hundred years of laboratory research on the testing effect and applied it to classrooms and subject curricula. Here’s what they recommend:
- Use frequent quizzing: testing interrupts forgetting
- Roll forward into each successive quiz questions on work from the previous term.
- Design quizzing to reach back to concepts and learning covered earlier in the term, so retrieval practice continues and learning is cumulative.
- Frequent low-stakes quizzes in class helps the instructor verify that students are in fact learning as well as they appear to be and reveal the areas where extra attention is needed. Cumulative quizzing is powerful for consolidating learning and concepts from one stage of a course into new material encountered later.
- Simply including one test retrieval practice in a class yields a large improvement in final exam scores, and gains continue to increase as the frequency of testing increases.
- Effortful retrieval makes for stronger learning and retention. The greater the effort to retrieve learning, *provided that you succeed*, the more learning is strengthened by retrieval.
- In virtually all areas of learning, you build better mastery when you use testing as a tool
- One of the best habits to instill in a learner is regular self-quizzing.
As far as I know, very few schools are applying these insights of cognitive psychology in their curriculum and assessment systems. Very few design systematically cumulative tests.
Here’s a very rough ‘before and after’ snapshot of what a Year 7 curriculum and assessment system might look like when changed to put frequent, cumulative retrieval practice at its heart:
- Repeated retrieval improves long-term memory retention
- Practice testing outperforms often-used techniques like highlighting and summarising
- Quizzing has several benefits for memory and motivation
- The benefits of quizzing for memory retention are long-lasting
- The scientific research chimes with expert experience
- There’s a mismatch between what schools do and what the science suggests
- Cumulative revisiting can improve our curriculum design
- Recent research is exploring the optimal format and frequency of quizzes
I would like to do a much more extensive literature review on this, but for now here are twelve of the papers that I think are useful:
Improving Students’ Learning with Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions from Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham 2011.
Repeated Retrieval Is the Key to Long-Term Retention. Karpicke & Roediger 2007
Retrieval practice is critical in long-term retention. Roediger & Butler 2010
Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Roediger & Karpicke 2006
Test-Enhanced Learning in a Middle School Science Classroom: The Effects of Quiz Frequency and Placement. McDaniel, Agarwal, Huelser, McDermott & Roediger 2011
Test-Enhanced Learning in the Classroom: Long-Term Improvements From Quizzing. Roediger et al 2011
Generalising test-enhanced learning from the laboratory to the classroom. McDaniel et al 2011
Quizzing promotes transfer in science exams. McDaniel 2011
The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Roediger & Karpicke 2006
Retrieval practice with short-answer, multiple-choice, and hybrid tests. Smith & Karpicke 2013