Try this teacher-tested, no fuss, low-stakes approach to assessing your students’ understanding

Students complete a test in a giant exercise book

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‘Turn to the back of your book’ – your cue for a quick, simple and effective retrieval quiz

Retrieval quizzes – you’ve probably seen and heard a lot about them. They are widely regarded as one of the greatest weapons in a teacher’s arsenal. Rosenshine’s 10 principles state that we ask lots of questions, guide student practice, check for understanding and obtain high success rates. Now put like that, it all sounds quite complicated and challenging, but I have found a relatively simple way to hit all those points easily.

I introduce to you: the back of the book verbal quiz. At any point in the lesson when I need to check for understanding, I need to check that what I’ve said has gone in, or I need all my students to practise answering questions, I do a back of the book quiz.

How and why to quiz

Here’s how I do back of the book verbal quizzes, and more importantly, why I take this quick, low-stakes approach:

  1. I get students to turn to the back of their books, to a blank(ish) page. A blank page means they can’t look at their notes. The back of their books means they don’t have to be neat and tidy, they can get things wrong, they can scribble. This overcomes the barrier of students not wanting to put incorrect answers and scribbles in their nice clean, tidy ‘front of the book’ notes.
  2. I then get them to write the numbers 1–5 or 1–10 down the side of the book. So they see the end point. They know it’s not going to be non-stop questions.
  3. I say each question aloud. I repeat each question once, and I wait until the majority of the class has stopped writing – this keeps the pace up. It means every student in the room will start and finish at the same time. It means the keen ones can’t rush ahead and get bored, and the lazy ones won’t sit doing nothing until the last minute. It reduces cognitive load. One question at a time is less load on the working memory than 10 questions written down at once. It also improves students’ attention and listening comprehension.
  4. While doing this, I jot down the answers – unless I’m using a pre-prepared quiz, which is rare, because I make up the questions off the top of my head based on the feedback I’ve received in the lesson. Perhaps I don’t think my explanation was that strong, so I question them on that to see how I did. This means quizzing takes minimal planning, plus I decide on the difficulty of the questions as we go. If I see students are finding them too easy, I make them a bit more difficult on the fly.
  5. I circulate the room as I say the questions aloud. I can monitor student engagement, but also note students who may be struggling. I may see everyone is struggling with a particular question, so I make a note to go back and check or reteach.
  6. After we finish the quiz, I read the answers aloud one by one, getting the students to use a different-coloured pen to tick their correct answers and circle their wrong answers. Then I can easily see if there’s a pattern – for example, everyone got question four wrong – and what I need to reteach.
  7. At the end, I ask the students to give me their score. The scores don’t go anywhere, so it’s all low stakes. Students enjoy seeing their score and where they can improve.

Establish an effective routine

I have found this approach incredibly successful. The students enjoy it, and I get real-time feedback on their learning. For every new class, I explain what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, getting them into a routine.

My students know that when I say, ‘back of your books, 1–10’, they’re getting a little verbal quiz. Some moan and groan. I take this as a good thing, it means they know they’re going to have to do some thinking, and some writing. With good routines, the whole process takes between five and 10 minutes, and it ensures every student is thinking, writing answers, and I can identify where my weak points are.

Give it a go. And share on Twitter how you get on.