Blended assessment through retrieval practice: an equity imperative

  • They end the distinction between formative and summative assessment, and between assessment and practice. Traditional education theory demarcates formative assessment, which is intended to give student and instructor a snapshot of current performance and to guide instructional decisions, from summative assessment, which is done to evaluate a student’s learning and assign a grade. This distinction has outlived its usefulness in the digital age. Students who take online quizzes can re-attempt them many times over without any extra time commitment on the part of the teacher, and they can receive immediate feedback rather than waiting for papers to be graded. Scores on these quizzes can and should be used to calculate a student’s grade, with the explicit understanding that the grade is fluid and may always be improved if the student invests additional effort and demonstrates growth. This makes every quiz attempt low-stakes for the student in that quiz failure does not have adverse grade consequences. This model can properly be described as “retrieval practice”. The US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences recommends “quizzing with active retrieval of information at all phases of the learning process to exploit the ability of retrieval directly to facilitate long-lasting memory traces” (Pashler et al., 2007), noting that quiz-based retrieval practice is one of the few learning strategies for which there is “strong” evidence of efficacy. Agarwal (2017), in a review of three studies ranging from middle school to medical school, noted a significant benefit to long-term retention, with effect sizes greater than d = .80. Although the quiz/test format is not the only way to promote retrieval practice, it has the advantage of encouraging maximum effort from students (who naturally want to perform well on anything that’s considered an assessment) and providing data that can inform grading and response to intervention.
  • Multiple assessment attempts on the same course material. More and more schools are implementing the practice known as standards-based grading (or “proficiency-based grading”, or “assessment for learning”), which awards no grade points for homework and behavior but also requires that students be given multiple attempts to demonstrate proficiency. Clymer and Wiliam (2007) contrast this modality with traditional grading systems:
  • Considerable variation in assessment items between students and between attempts. Numeric questions make use of Moodle’s “calculated” question type, in which random numbers within set limits are generated for each question, and student responses are evaluated using a teacher-supplied formula and a margin of error. Further variation is incorporated by using an item bank with multiple variants of each question type, which are sampled at random every time a new assessment attempt is generated. Two students sitting next to each other will have completely different quizzes, and a student re-attempting a quiz will have it regenerated from scratch.
  • Throwback questions. Every quiz and exam is cumulative, with a typical assessment consisting of around 20% items from past units. This results in assessments that are both interleaved (involving a diverse set of problems from across the curriculum) and spaced through the year on an expanding schedule (i.e., with more elapsed time between subsequent reviews of a given concept, because the chances of any particular question type appearing diminish as more content is included). This combination of spaced rehearsal and interleaved practice is supported by robust findings in cognitive science (Mozer et al. 2009; Rohrer 2014; Cepeda et al. 2006)
  • Teacher feedback involving worked examples. Students are encouraged to ask for help following an unsuccessful quiz attempt. When they do, I provide them with a detailed solution to each problem they solved incorrectly. Students know that re-attempted quizzes will contain entirely new problems, so memorizing the answer will be no use — they must understand how the solution is arrived at.
  • Lab work. Blended assessment can be applied to practical exercises as well. I have written “quiz questions” that actually serve to check students’ pre-lab calculations and results. In this example, I prepared potassium chloride solutions with a range of concentrations and used a conductivity tester to generate a standard curve; then, I programmed Moodle to use the curve to check students’ empirical values. This allows every student to work on their own unique lab problem, and to receive instant feedback on their results — and most importantly, to re-attempt the procedure an unlimited number of times (with a different random assigned concentration each time) until they are satisfied with the results.
  • Accessible anywhere. Students can log on to the class website from any device; it works well with smartphones. They have the option to work on assessments at home, at the library, on the bus, while waiting in line, etc. In the past, fears of the “digital divide” exacerbating equity issues may have prevented serious consideration of blended learning, but today, 92.5% of my students report owning their own smartphone, and 95% are able to access the Internet at home. Many lower-income students are saddled with responsibilities or inconveniences (public transit, etc.) that prevent them from meeting with teachers outside the school day to re-attempt assessments. The blended assessment strategy bridges this gap.




Medical student, science teacher, ed-tech evangelist, educational game designer, snark

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Andrew Lyman-Buttler

Andrew Lyman-Buttler

Medical student, science teacher, ed-tech evangelist, educational game designer, snark

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