As much as I want the kids to enjoy a never-ending round of creative cycles, I know that they need knowledge and skills in order to be fully, authentically successful in those cycles. That means there’s a certain level of memorisation required. At the moment, my DP students have probably had five or six exams asking them to memorise the key signatures, in the past three years (gr 9 – 11), and they are still iffy on them. Meanwhile, my English Language Learner students always do poorly on my Criterion A assessments. Enter a book I received for Christmas – How We Learn, by Benedict Carey.

I’m only halfway through it, but I’ve learned enough to start prototyping some assessments in my class. In a nutshell, this is what I’ve learned so far:

– we tend to remember almost everything we’ve ever learned; however, all knowledge is stored in a retrieval system and much of it is systematically forgotten in order to keep our brains from exploding. Some knowledge is high value with high retrieval, some is high value with low retrieval, low value with high retrieval or low value with low retrieval.  When students cram for an exam the night before, they have high value with low retrieval, because the minute the exam is done, the information is now gone. The secret is how to move important information into the high retrieval set.

– In order to move information into the high retrieval set, we need to store that information in multiple locations in our brains. This is done through accessing it in high stress, interval situations in a variety of locations and settings. This point has two ideas, but I’ll address the locations first.

  •  If you want your brain to store important information in a variety of locations, you need to recall it in a variety of settings. This means, if you want to remember something important (like me trying to learn Chinese characters), you need to study one night in bright lights at the kitchen table in silence, but the next night in mood-lighting, with jazz, in the study, and the afternoon during a sunny day in the park. This way, when you recall the information, a triggered memory will help to pull the memory retrieval for you
  • High stress situations featuring intervals? Studies from the early 1900s show that accessing information over staggered amounts of time increase memory retrieval, and that this is best done in assessment situations. At first glance, this is a ‘no-brainer.’ Everybody knows that studying over an extended period of time is more beneficial than cramming the night before. However, studies have shown that there are specific schedules for which memory retrieval is at its most efficient. If you need to prepare for an exam that is 2 1/2 months away, you need to study, and then put the material away for a full month. Then study, and then again two weeks later, and then a week later, and then two days later, and then the day before the exam, etc.  Academics wanted to know whether general study would suffice, and found out that, actually, exams are best for memory recall. And not just any exam… multiple choice exams are the best. (WHAT?!)
  • Multiple choice assessments aid in studying. What a headline! Researchers found that students who studied from set notes had a lower retention because they did not need to engage in deeper level thinking that might have resulted in higher retention. The book’s example was this – if you ask someone to study the name of the capital city of Australia, they would study, “Canberra.” But… give them a multiple choice question that lists Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, and Canberra, and suddenly the student has to sit and ponder for a minute. One of these is the economic powerhouse of Australia, and another is the capital… which is which? 
  • The last point, on this long topic, was on the value of a pre-test. (Again, the author was preaching to the choir, here. We all love pre-tests, right?) Studies showed that students given a pre-test performed better on assessments than control groups without pre-tests. Basically, the tests acted as a high-stress (high motivation) catalyst for entering information into a different section of the brain. 

What’s my point?

Here’s my prototype for this semester’s learning.

My DP Music students have an exam in May of 2018. We’ve done Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque, and are now starting on Classical. Plus, they’ve done a variety of world cultures.  I’m going to start giving them interval-ed multiple choice tests throughout the next year. I’m going to use Kahoot because it’s a) fast, b) fun and c) gives immediate assessment results to me. 

I’ve given my grade 6s a Kahoot pretest on general information about the history of rock, rock pioneers, and how to put together a rock ensemble. I downloaded their initial results from Kahoot. I’m going to give them the same quiz at different intervals throughout the semester, but under slightly different conditions. One time, I’ll do it in the middle ensemble room; one time, I’ll do it with the lights off using natural lighting; one time, I’ll do it at the beginning of class, or maybe at the end of class. Then, I’ll check the results of their final assessments versus last semester’s grade 6 class (which is acting as my control). 

One question I had for myself was… would this be too time consuming? We all know teachers aren’t supposed to work harder than their students (for efficiency sake); however, with Kahoot (shameless plug), the question generation is so fast that I can literally draw up a quiz in about 10 minutes. I’ve already set all my DP music quizzes for the next three months.