Last week, I paused before entering my eighth grade honors earth and environmental science classroom and watched a flurry of activity. Sensing that the class was ready to go, a student — unprompted — pressed play on the quiz. For five minutes, students cheered over correct responses, snapped their fingers over misclicks and celebrated as classmates moved up on the leader board.
In recording data, students shared how much their scores increased from the previous day. Early finishers migrated around the room helping classmates while two others distributed interactive notebooks as the agenda on the board called for that resource. I watched all of this from the doorway without saying a word. I did not need to. My students have taken ownership of their learning, and I am happy to facilitate their educational journey.
How did this happen, you ask?
Origins of the transformation
This transformation of the learning environment did not happen overnight. In fact, it did not happen within a month of the beginning of the academic year. This was the culmination of several weeks of intentional and consistent educational practices, strategically layered to encourage student buy-in, participation and ownership.
Beginning on opening day, I used team-building challenges to engage the learners in my classroom. These challenges were fun — loud collaboration, laughter and movement while students practiced learning with a low-stakes productive struggle. In five short days of challenges, I had all of the information I needed to create effective laboratory groups in my science class.
In reviewing my data on science content mastery, the latest set of assessment data was not significantly different from the data of previous student cohorts. Gifted and high-achieving students who excelled in the traditional setting and were organized, detail-oriented, attentive and maintained a strong work ethic consistently earned high marks. However they failed to reach, must less extend beyond, their potential. They struggled academically and emotionally with rigorous assignments that extended them to analyze, synthesize, apply and create.
At the same time, the lower achieving students, despite doing everything that I asked, were met with the same disappointment time and time again. The students were giving me everything that I asked: They met class expectations by demonstrating a high level of understanding of various types of formative assessments throughout the unit of study. They studied the nights leading up to the unit test. They had taken their time during the assessment, reading and rereading every question and carefully selecting an answer. Yet, their efforts were not translating to a demonstration of mastery based on the standardized unit assessment. Student morale suffered and the emotional climate of the classroom was nearing an all-time low. Something had to change, so it was time to return to the drawing board.
The learning catalyst
I turned to my students for help. In interviewing students and revisiting the test scores, I realized that my classroom needed daily formative assessment focused on the intentional retrieval of specific content. I realized that my students needed to have instant access to new vocabulary (the term) and its meaning in order to apply it to a complex, multifaceted question. Retrieval practice has evidence to be effective in isolated vocabulary instruction. Therefore, I researched what this might look like with my specific group of learners.
Retrieval practice in my classroom
In researching retrieval practices, I quickly connected with two strategies: scaffolded retrieval and low-risk quizzes. The use of scaffolded retrieval strategies with guided concept maps was quickly embraced by all students, and students enjoyed completing missing gaps. Students also enjoyed the team approach to completing these targeted graphic organizers, and this was a class activity that let each learner progress at their level and pace by differentiating texts, organizer, and strategically selecting groups.
On the other hand, convincing students to invest in daily quizzes was going to be a tough sell. However, what I quickly realized was that the video game industry easily grabs their attention as they have the device in hand. From this, the gamified use of the retrieval practice — low-risk quizzes — was born. I replaced my bell ringer activities (work that students complete as they are transitioning into my classroom to begin their class) with targeted vocabulary instruction and a hint of friendly competition using the Quizizz platform, I created practice assessments (10-18 questions, each), tightly aligned to instructional standards: rich in vocabulary and understanding of content.
How did I earn student buy-in?
Gamification! The Quizizz platform has an engaging interface that makes students feel like they are playing a video game. Also, the questions randomly sort so that students receive the questions in a different order than their classmates. Lastly, the addition of the timer feature to each question reduces the points available as time passes, which encourages the students to answer quickly to win the game. In class, students earn points (Quizziz calls it experience points or XP) two ways: Earning a spot on the leader board for a daily quiz or if their class has the highest class average for the day. Students earn class privileges based on their XP level. Currently, my students are working diligently to earn the privilege of earbuds during independent work time. I didn’t just earn their buy-in, I have students asking to do these quizzes even outside of the classroom for preparation.
How did this change my classroom?
Quick and Smooth transitions. With the game code on the board as students transition into class, they are logged into the platform by the time the bell rings. In fact, there is often a race to log in first! As soon as students finish their quiz, they quickly and quietly transition by setting up their learning space based on the posted agenda. With first finishers modeling this expectation, the rest of the class follows this practice. This allows me to begin the day’s lesson with no loss of instructional time, and, in six minutes, students have practiced content with instantaneous feedback and established their workspace for the day — without a single direction.
Instant, individualized feedback. This game offers instant feedback allowing students to review their performance —including the individual missed questions — immediately. Students may groan about an incorrect response, particularly if they misclick, but there are no meltdowns because the score does not impact student grades.
Progress monitoring — with data. This platform provides rich data — most frequently missed question, individual student data and class averages. Each day, I can spend 1-2 minutes unpacking a question that stumped many students, effectively reteaching that concept based on an immediate need identified in real time. To ensure that they are not simply memorizing the questions, I recycle vocabulary and concepts in future practice sets by asking in a different way.
It isn’t just my monitoring. Students track their progress through a shared digital document. Through this exercise, students also create specific, measurable and attainable goals and monitor their progress toward their goals. After using this practice for one full unit, average student test scores increased by 22%.
Class culture redefined. As students achieve mastery in specific content, they have filled a leadership opportunity in our learning space. One day, when a class was within one percentage point of an earlier class in the day, a student — who had been successful with the day’s assessment — asked if he could help a classmate. From there, my classroom became a swarm of students helping students. These students gravitated toward struggling students to help by prompting students with hints — but not simply give the answer, a process that I model when I help struggling students. As the weeks passed, the practice organically continued with absolutely no prompting from me and it is, hands down, the most beautiful result of this classroom practice. The icing on the cake is that they are talking about ways that they can be “better prepared” instead of “study.”
Tips for getting started
The educational climate of our space has transformed from one of defeat and disappointment to one that embraces a challenge and celebrates success. Through the intentional use of retrieval practices, my students are more confident in their ability to apply their content knowledge to novel scenarios and are more invested learners. This, alone, for me translates into higher levels of student success. It does not hurt that student scores on summative assessments are increasing too. Here are some tips to make retrieval practice work in your classroom:
- Start small and swap out busy work activities with retrieval practice.
- Create multiple opportunities that allow students to learn, to feel more comfortable taking risks and failing forward. Examples include makerspace building challenges, STEM challenges, puzzle races and classwide games where teams change often.
- Be consistent with delivery and platform. Maintaining a routine will help sustain a healthy emotional climate letting them focus on learning instead of dealing with change. Incorporate student voice! Students love to share ideas, lead challenges and develop class goals. This increases their investment and also contributes to a healthy emotional climate in your classroom.
- Pause and embrace productive struggle. Students will request help, however, it is important to provide the time and space to think, solve problems, collaborate with peers and act.
- Pause before redirecting students. I’ve almost stopped my students from helping each other for fear that it would skew my formative assessment data. If I had, I would have missed one of the more organic and authentic peer tutoring models that has ever taken place in my classroom. When things are not going according to plan, pause. Sometimes, the students are taking them in a direction far better than you could have imagined!
Above all, have fun. Participate in challenges. Jump in on teams. Laugh. Learn.
Holly King (@hollysking) has served as a secondary science educator for 22 years. She currently teaches earth and environmental science and is an Innovative Educator on the coast of North Carolina. She hopes to inspire educators to transform their learning spaces through the development of innovative instructional practices to ensure that all students are challenged to communicate, critically think, problem solve and create every day. This post was written in collaboration with NarayanKripa Sundararajan (@KripaSundar), learning sciences specialist at ISTE.
This blog post is part of the Course of Mind project, an ISTE initiative made possible in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative DAF, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. Tell us what you’ve learned and your story @courseofmind.