Roger Loxley extols the benefits to both students and teachers of regular quick testing to reinforce key knowledge

One of the good parts of my job is helping to run a series of training days in the region. It gets me out of my school and into many others. I therefore get to meet lots of teachers doing some wonderful things in the classroom.

Last year I met a physics teacher who was doing some great work with small, low-stakes tests in the classroom. It was an approach that integrated well with what we’ve been trying to look at in my school, namely how to make assessment more meaningful, supportive of students, less high-stakes (unless necessary), more valid and valuable and with less work for the teacher. So, I decided to try his approach for myself. It worked, so I’m continuing with it this year too.

The basic principles behind it are:

  • The recognised value of learning knowledge
  • The importance of regular practice to secure knowledge
  • The importance of regular testing of knowledge
  • Getting students used to being tested so that high-stakes tests are less of a shock to the system
  • Using technology to reduce teacher marking load
  • Using technology to provide useful data that helps inform planning and learning

It’s a very simple idea. Every lesson I start with a quick, five-question multiple choice test based on the knowledge learned from the previous lesson. So, the test picks up on facts, concepts and definitions from the previous lesson.

I conduct the tests on a PowerPoint show that neatly builds into a really solid bank of multiple choice questions over the course of the term or year (helpful with revision later). Students answer the questions using Microsoft Forms so they simply click on the answer grid on their phones. The results then appear live on my screen and I can then show them to the students as we go through the questions. The screen doesn’t show individual answers but only the number opting for each answer so no students are picked on individually.

After the lesson, I download the individual answers to a spreadsheet and copy that selection across to my main markbook. It allows me therefore to monitor students’ individual responses.

So, what do we all get from this? Firstly, I get an idea of how well the students know the content from the previous lesson. This is helpful because it identifies any gaps in knowledge either at an individual level, from which I can support a student, or at a whole class level, which helps inform my planning and teaching.

Secondly, students like knowing that each lesson begins the same way. They now get out their phones as they enter the room, knowing what’s coming. They also like the slightly competitive nature of the tests. They do understand that nothing rides on the outcomes; I don’t set revision homeworks, I don’t penalise them if they do badly on a particular test (in fact we move straight on without referring back to it). They say they enjoy knowing that they know.

Thirdly, I get really good data. It informs me about their knowledge and understanding and it helps me with my planning. It’s quick, requires very little preparation and certainly minimal marking since it’s all done online. So, I have lots of colour-coded numbers in my markbook that gives me plenty of evidence for reporting and grading.

But, where it’s really valuable is in tracking and the correlation with high stakes tests. I plotted the daily tests results against my Y11s mock exams. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the correlation turned out to be pretty good.

This was really helpful in getting the students to understand the importance of regular revision of work, learning of knowledge and testing of understanding. It highlighted those who did well on the daily tests and mock exams, which proved quite a reinforcer for them and a motivator for those that weren’t doing so well. It meant that the latter group could also see quite a quick difference in their performance over the next few weeks as their daily test scores rose once they realised the importance of them.

Anecdotally, the students seemed really to appreciate the value of the tests. They like the easy way in which they work, they like the low stakes nature of them, they like the little bit of competition that comes into it. They like the reinforcement of their own knowledge and they like knowing that they know.

I like getting really helpful data without having to mark loads of work. I like the fact that lessons start with a bit of recall of knowledge, it gets us all in the right frame of mind and means we can move straight into content. I like knowing where there are gaps in students’ knowledge and understanding because that really shows me what I need to focus on. The regular, repeated nature of it keeps us all on our toes a bit too.

Roger Loxley is Director of Studies for Economics at Newcastle Royal Grammar School.