Retrieve, Recall, Reflect and Refine: Preparing for Exams/Projects…NOW: A Blog Post on How to Make Learning Last

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Written by Glenn Whitman and Dr. Ian Kelleher

As the weather warms and students see that they are in the home stretch of the school year, their brains and the brains of their teachers are starting to think about summer. At the same time, we realize at St. Andrew’s and many schools around the world that significant stressors await: national and state assessments of learning as well as school and teacher-designed final exams and projects.

The longstanding tradition of summative assessment final exams as the way to measure a student’s cumulative understanding remains a common pedagogical practice. When we first got to St. Andrew’s, we provided students with two sets of exams, one just before Thanksgiving and the other at the end of the year (we now only give one set of exams for yearlong courses). Like many schools, we have deliberated over the proper number and placement of exams. But for what reasons? We think there should be two goals of summative assessments: to maximize the learning of new knowledge and skills and to best develop students’ exam/project taking skills (since exams will be a feature of most of our students’ higher education lives).

What is the purpose of exams? The traditional responses include to: “know what students know” and “see how well students can recall a larger body of material.” But, at best, students demonstrate such knowledge and understanding for the short term. Part of the unspoken game of exams is that students routinely expunge all this from their brain the moment they leave the exam room. UCLA psychology professor Robert Bjork calls this “accessibility,” and it is a pointless goal for a year-long arduous, emotional journey in a class.

Learning is different from accessibility. Learning involves creating durable and flexible knowledge that students are able to use in novel contexts. If we want exams to be related to learning rather than accessibility, what can we do differently?

A research-informed experience every teacher who is designing a final exam or project should consider is one school’s approach after having students take final exams in June. The following September they gave the students the exam again, unannounced this time. But the teachers pared the exam down to the crucial, big-picture elements they absolutely hoped students would have taken from the course. Even with this tweak, the results, as you might guess, were disheartening. Most students failed, and the average was 58%. Should we have expected anything more?

But research suggests that there might be a better way to approach cumulative assessments. And, with one month before AP exams, and two months before final exams and projects, we propose a new way of thinking about final exams and suggest the following research-informed strategies as ways to have students strengthen their neural networks. One hope for this work is that it will reduce student exam stress, which, as the connection between cognition and emotion shows, can contribute to a student’s poor performance, even if he or she studied for the assessment.

Beginning a final exam/project development review/preparation period two weeks before exams commence, the current policy at St. Andrew’s, is not enough. In fact, if we consider MBE science and research around memory, the weeks ahead provide excellent opportunities to make the spacing effect, retrieval practice, and formative assessment common occurrences in our classes. So here are some suggestions:

1. Determine the essential knowledge and skills you want students to know and demonstrate on a final exam or project. As you ponder the 3-5 essential understandings and the content that underpins those understandings, consider seeing your students twenty years from now and what you hope stuck in their brains from your class.

2. Inspired by a recent Tweet from Learning Scientists (@acethattest, www.learningscientists.org) create a one-month (for AP Exams) or two-month (final exams/projects) calendar that includes daily content or skills you want students to recall at the beginning of each class with a quick, written or online formative assessment. Another tweet-inspired idea from Brad Dale (@bradjdale) 24-hours before the finals of the NCAA women’s and men’s basketball championships is to create a bracket of content you want students to recall and have students discuss a matchup or two per day. Start with your #1 seeds. What would they be for a set of world history events, math formulas, or elements on the Periodic Table (imagine H going up against Fe)?

3. If you already have taught some of the knowledge and skills that you will assess on the final exam, start providing students opportunities to see how much they have retained and can recall through weekly, or even daily, short formative assessments. As a reminder, a formative assessment is one in which students get to see where they are, you get to see where they are, and you both do things differently as a result of this insight. One practical guideline for formative assessments is to give them the lowest grade point value possible for students to engage deeply with the task. As St. Andrew’s biology teacher Phyllis Robinson said, “Right now students in my AP Bio class would do anything for two points.”

4. For those teachers giving alternative exams or projects, use these recall opportunities to prime a student’s brain for the type of content, creativity, connections, and skills you want them to demonstrate.

5. As you work through the final third of the school year and introduce new content and skills to students, find ways for students to “hang” prior knowledge onto that new knowledge. For example, as students study the Korean and Vietnam Wars in history class, a teacher will have them review the causes of the previous wars they have studied that year to find points of intersection and departure. For example, it seems ships are always a common theme: remember the Merrimack and the Monitor, The Maine, Lusitania, and Pearl Harbor and the Maddox?

6. Teach students important memory strategies such as:

– Flashcards: Most students usually use the cards incorrectly. They flip them over too quickly, creating a false sense of understanding. One important tip: students should not turn over the card to check for an answer unless they have deliberately considered their response. The not-knowing-struggle-pause is the crucial step.

– Self-testing: Use review sheets, check the posted answer guide, check your notes where understanding is unclear, and check in with the teacher if questions or uncertainties remain.

– Retrieval practice: Take out a piece of paper and write and sketch what you know (“dual coding” of words plus pictures may help, depending on the subject and student – have kids experiment with it). Or create a post-it note organizational masterpiece. As with self-testing, check with notes afterwards and see the teacher if necessary. In the words of Dr. Judy Willis, who worked with St. Andrew’s teachers in 2014, “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

7. Interleave new material with recap blasts of older material. Where it fits naturally, “spiral” by building on previous knowledge, though this is not always essential. For example, see the diagram below for an illustration of how spaced learning can look differently from massed learning.

Screen Shot 2017-04-20 at 10.42.03 PM

Research suggests that spaced review leads to higher test scores and longer term retention of learning than massed studying, as shown in the diagram below.

8. John Hattie’s giant meta-study of 300 million students found that the most important aspect of successful learning is to use the right strategy at the right time. So what exam preparation strategies work for each individual student? Have students go into Schoology, or your Learning Management System (LMS) equivalent, to see how they reflected on the exam or project from the previous year. Focus here on the strategies, not the grade, and what can be gleaned from prior experience.

9. When writing review questions, try alternating questions for students to do with worked example answers. Research suggests that this pattern improves learning.

10. Try this: two or three weeks prior to your final exam or project, provide students a giant formative assessment in the form of a “mock” exam. We see this as a game changer for how students prepare for exams, how teachers grade final exams, and how feedback is given. Such an assessment would do three critically important things:

    • allow the teacher to know what students know and don’t know (and thus bring focus to review sessions)
    • allow the student to know where he or she is currently with the material
    • allow both the teacher and student to do something different ahead of the exam

It means that the teacher can give feedback at a point in time when students can actually choose to make good use of it. All the ‘red pen’ on final exams is perhaps the least ‘bang for your buck’, and greatest waste of effort, that teachers do. So let’s cut it out. Also, by this point in the year, we should be aiming to give students less detailed feedback –leaving them to put in the thinking to fix their mistakes, using their notes and then their teacher when necessary. By the end of the year, we want our students to have taken a step forward in being independent thinkers and strong self-advocates, so let’s incentivize this in the exams.

Although giving students a mock exam may seem like “giving the test away,” that is, in fact, the whole point of the mock exam since our goal is for students to see where they are, where they need to get to, and what they need to do before the exam. We believe a mock exam could even work as a lead-in to a final project.

If you feel that giving a mock exam would be too much of a giveaway, we suggest you rethink the content of your exam: does it weigh too heavily on surface knowledge rather than the deep thinking that we want students to engage in? A great exam will require that magic mix of surface knowledge and deep thinking of our students.

As teachers, we are passionate about our subject and would love for as much knowledge and skills to stick with our students as possible. Instead of bemoaning our students’ amazing ability to forget, let’s work strategically to help make durable learning happen. Make the spacing effect, retrieval practice, and formative assessment your friends this spring. So when we ask students who LBJ was, they will be more likely to say Lyndon Baines Johnson than Lebron James.

For more research-informed ideas, follow the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning on Twitter @thecttl and sign up here for The Bridge, the monthly newsletter of the CTTL.  Each month The Bridge analyzes a specific aspect of teaching and learning through a Mind, Brain and Education Science research-informed lens.

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