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The Benefits of Quizzing and Low-Stakes Testing

Adam Brown, Head of Mathematics, shares his thoughts on why quizzing and low-stakes testing has a really positive impact on pupil's learning, self-esteem and confidence levels. 

At Mercia School, all teachers believe in the importance of tests. Lots of them, and often. In fact, tests happen so frequently that it may feel to our pupils like they’re happening all the time. Our teachers’ beliefs aren’t simply based on a random ideology. As with all aspects of our school, we have looked carefully at the evidence around how testing can improve outcomes for children.

Some of you reading this may think that if a child hated tests at primary school then Mercia wouldn’t be the school for them. I would argue the opposite. That’s because tests at Mercia are different. If reports of increased stress in children associated with Key Stage 2 SATS are reliable, then this is a sad outcome and one that perhaps Ofsted, the DfE and primary school leaders should reflect upon. After all, as we have told our pupils, whether you score 85, 100 or even 120 in your KS2 SATS will make no direct difference to the course of your life. Nobody will ever ask you about it again!

Tests at Mercia rarely take the form of ‘high stakes’ summative assessments. Instead, at least once a week in each subject (and sometimes once per lesson), students have the chance to show off how much knowledge they have acquired and retained in ‘low-stakes’ quizzes. These quizzes are a chance for children to recap what has been covered in the lesson or the previous series of lessons – whether that’s a new way of working out complex calculations in maths, complicated data relating to world trade in geography, or conjugation of a new tense in French.

The quizzes benefit the learning of our students in many ways, which include, but aren’t limited to:

  • They exploit the slightly surprising but well-documented ‘testing effect’ – this is the phenomenon that, following the teaching of a topic or concept, it is more likely to be remembered and recalled successfully if repeatedly tested on it (as opposed to simply studying the concept over again).
  • They complement classroom practice on topics in a helpful way – raising the stakes very slightly and resulting in significant effortful practice by pupils. Our pupils are fond of repeating the mantra that they will “practise till they can’t get it wrong”. And quizzes provide some valuable extra practice.
  • They offer the chance for students to celebrate their learning. Often, quizzes will be deliberately designed to generate a high success rate, whilst still requiring a reasonable degree of effort on the children’s part. This success is celebrated loudly and proudly with either the giving of house points or (just as valued) teachers making an overt fuss over great performances or improvements by pupils. Regular, low-stakes testing is a great way for Mercia’s teachers to show just how proud they are of the pupils day-in-day-out.
  • Last but not least, they offer a chance for children who may previously suffered from exam anxiety to realise that the world doesn’t end if you do badly on a test! Pupils know that underperformance in a test or quiz can be a really good thing. Teachers seize the opportunity to fill the gaps and pupils really appreciate the extra help and support.

We make no apology for the frequency of quizzing and assessing at Mercia School. There is a strong (and still growing body of evidence) that frequent testing and deliberate practice of newly acquired skills leads to significantly improved retention of these skills in long term memory. Once knowledge and skills are in long term memory, and easily retrieved, we can consider them to have been successfully learnt. Without the effortful retrieval practice that testing offers, the risk of forgetting new knowledge is treacherously high.

Designing, delivering and observing the results of quizzes also gives us classroom teachers an invaluable insight into how children are performing. Teachers at Mercia don’t take books home to mark and children don’t receive homework in term-time so these quizzes provide crucial feedback to us on the efficacy of our teaching. We get to see whether what we have taught has actually ‘stuck’. This is particularly valuable when certain topics are re-tested after a gap of some weeks or months.

Mercia pupils also sit longer and broader assessments in each subject – covering all the knowledge and skills developed so far. These assessments share many of the benefits of quizzes but their role is wider. In particular, we want our pupils to see the link between their effort and their success. This is a key message repeated often by Mercia teachers and we want children to appreciate that it exists, regardless of starting point. We also want our students to practise giving 100 per cent whilst still working independently for an extended period. Crucially, even these longer assessments are structured to inform future teaching – our assessment cycle has been designed to allow for significant time to be allocated for consolidation of taught content, which may include going to greater depth in some topics. This also means that teachers aren’t forced to move on to more advanced concepts before the foundations of knowledge are secured.

All in all, our pupils have adapted brilliantly to the demands of quizzing and assessments at Mercia School. And they are so much a part of the routines that it’s not unusual to have children cheering (very quietly, under their breath) when a teacher announces that “it’s time for a knowledge quiz”!