Sunday, 3 August 2014

"Make it stick" with regular quizzes

Advocates of constructivism in education - or, for that matter, communicative language teaching - attach strong importance to learners constructing or negotiating meanings for themselves. The aim of pedagogy, we are sometimes told, is not so much the rote learning of knowledge as the practical application of knowledge and the development of higher-order thinking skills; the role of language teaching is not so much to ensure formal accuracy as the development of communicative competence.

As a teacher I'm all for these things, but I would like to suggest a note of caution is in order. If all language learners do in class is express themselves, is their level of language acquisition actually advancing? This implies at the very least a role for regular, albeit low-stakes and minimally invasive, classroom testing. With thoughts such as these in mind, I was pleased this summer both to be able to read Brown, Roediger & McDaniel's book "Make It Stick" (Harvard University Press, 2014) and take a look at some tools that support this form of classroom testing.

In the rest of this post I'll therefore explain what I believe "Make It Stick" has to say about the importance of incorporating regular, low-stakes quizzes in our teaching, then move on to review ICT tools that appear to support such an approach especially well. 

Making it stick: why quizzes are such a great idea!
Empirical research has indicated that practising information retrieval "makes learning stick" far better than re-exposure to original material. This is known as the testing effect, or retrieval-practice effect (Roediger & Karpicke 2006, cited by Brown et al. 2014:28). To be maximally effective, retrieval must be practiced repeatedly and at spaced intervals, so that the act of recall requires some cognitive effort. Repeated recall appears to help the human memory "consolidate into a cohesive representation in the brain and to multiply the neural routes by which the knowledge can later be retrieved". In recent decades, studies have confirmed that repeated retrieval so embeds knowledge and skills that they become reflexive: "the brain acts before the mind has time to think" (Brown et al. 2014:28-29).

Recent action research studies make this point forcefully. Students from a 6th grade social studies class at Columbia Middle School in 2006 scored a full grade higher on material that had been quizzed than material which had not been quizzed, or simply revisited in the form of statements of fact. Even better results were obtained when this approach was extended to 8th grade science classes the following year, and the testing effect persisted eight months later at end-of-year exams (Roediger et al. 2011; McDaniel et al. 2011; Agarwal, Bain & Chamberlain 2012: all cited by Brown et al. 2014:33-35).

Other points in favour of quizzes might include:
  • Briefly delayed feedback may sometimes produce better long-term learning than immediate feedback (Butler & Roediger 2008: cited by Brown et al. 2014:39-40);
  • Regular, low-stakes classroom testing can improve student attendance, increase studying before class and attentiveness during class, and enable students better to evaluate what they know and what they must improve on. It also lowers anxiety. These benefits accrue whether instruction is delivered face-to-face, or online (Roediger, Smith & Putnam 2012: cited by Brown et al. 2014:42-43).
  • Spaced practice allows time for mental rehearsal and other processes of consolidation - the increased effort required to retrieve the learning after "a little forgetting" has the effect of retriggering consolidation, further strengthening memory (Bjork & Bjork 2009; Schiller et al. 2010; Finn & Roediger 2011: all cited by Brown et al. 2014: 49).
All told, this is quite a strong case for making quizzes part of your classroom routine. It has also made me think about how best to teach "revision" lessons - perhaps quizzes should be integrated with review of content on such occasions, with review taking place after quizzes (and therefore directed at revealed areas of difficulty).

So what ICT applications support this?
I'd say four stand out, and two manifestly support a BYOD classroom:
  • Hot Potatoes - this is still quite a good one. It's free to use, and allows teachers to create interactive multiple choice, short-answer, jumbled-sentence, matching/ordering and gap-fill exercises. The only downside: there is no longer any technical support for it!
  • Quizlet - plenty of teachers swear by this, and you can create self-grading tests and worksheets here without paying. However, more advanced features involve gamification: learners can quickly get hooked on this, but you have to pay a licence fee.
  • mQlicker - a nice-looking app which I've reviewed in an earlier post. You can set a number of types of questions, students can respond using devices they've brought to class, and you can visualize who understands what very quickly. And it's free to use!
  • Socrative - also a very attractive app that elicits real-time responses from classes or audiences. As it offers more alternative modes of quiz implementation, it may just have the edge on mQlicker for the time being. It is also free to use.
All told, I think quizzes should be part of my routine as a language teacher. Besides keeping students on their toes, it helps them remember. I'd like to give Socrative a go this coming autumn when I return to the classroom.

So how about you: have you tried any of these tools previously? Or would you be willing to give them a try? I'd be interested to know what you think.

Brown, P.C., Roediger, H.L & McDaniel, M.A. (2014). Make it stick: the science of successful learning. Harvard University Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment